A CUP OF COFFEE WITH… Light Commissioner Jean-Jacques Yarmoff

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If there was a record for “most circuitous route to settle in Marblehead,” Jean-Jacques Yarmoff might hold it.

The town’s newest light commissioner comes to the good old town by way of France… and Japan… and California… and France again.

Marblehead Light Commissioner Jean-Jacques Yarmoff

As he was just settling into his new role as light commissioner — and as he was still awaiting a recount to confirm the election result — Yarmoff talked with Marblehead News about joining an elected body that has largely operated under the radar.

That’s a missed opportunity, Yarmoff said, given how much control Marblehead has to shape its energy future, as one of a few dozen Massachusetts cities and towns with its own municipal light department.

Yarmoff is joining the Light Commission at an exciting and crucial time, he explained. As Marblehead plots its energy plan, it will need to account for a proliferation of electric vehicles on its streets, as well as alternative energy sources that are rapidly becoming cheaper than their fossil fuel counterparts. 

Drawing on his engineering background, Yarmoff looks forward to being part of the discussions that lie ahead. Perhaps more importantly, he hopes to inspire his fellow residents to pay attention and make their voices heard. 

Q. I understand you have traveled a long and winding road to Marblehead. Tell me a little bit about your background.

A. I was born in France and studied in France until my master’s. I graduated with a diploma in chemical engineering and was happy to be the recipient of a grant from the Japanese government to study at the University of Tokyo for 18 months in 1983.

It became quickly apparent after a few months in Japan that the culture was quite different from anything I’d been ever exposed to, whether in Europe or in North America. I was curious and I decided I needed to stay longer, so I applied at that point for the [doctorate] course and ended up staying for five years.

During those five years, because I had been doing it in France, I took up singing, both with the university chorus but also with an outside chorus in town, a mixed chorus with both Japanese [residents] and foreigners, led by a Canadian guy.

That’s where I met my wife (Louise), who was an American from Marblehead who had gone to Japan after she graduated from Yale. She went initially for one year to teach English, and in a similar manner to me, she decided to stay on. She worked for a Japanese company, Canon, for years. 

We came back to Marblehead and got married 34 years ago, but it was not without complications. Even though at the time of our wedding I had a job offer from a French company and we moved to France soon after the wedding, the State Department or whoever was in charge of visas at that time decided that, since I was going to be married in America to an American, I must be immigrating. That I had a job offer and job contract was irrelevant.

Even though I applied for a visitor’s visa, I [was put in the process for] an immigrant visa, which took a long time to get. Until a few days before the wedding, there was trepidation about, “Is this going to happen, or not?”

Then we moved to France. We were there for two-and-a-half years. Then we moved back to the United States, following my work.

I got a job with Kodak, which had a pharmaceutical subsidiary called Sterling Winthrop, which was headquartered in New York City. That’s where our first son was born. Then we moved to New Jersey, where our second son was born. I was commuting into New York City.

Then we changed to the West Coast and stayed seven years north of Los Angeles, in Thousand Oaks, California.

Q. Did you come to Marblehead from there?

A. [Louise’s] family still lived in Marblehead, and we came back for vacation every time we could. I still had family in France, so for vacation we were going back, sometimes to France, sometimes to Marblehead.

From California on, the children were learning French from this weird person, their dad, who was the only person around who was speaking French. That led to interesting conversations at home, where one part of the conversation was in one language and then the reply was in another.

We wanted them to have both cultures and be fluent in French, so we moved to France in 2003. After 11 years in America, we were in France for 11 years.

Both of our sons graduated from French high school with a baccalaureate. We were very proud that they both did very well. Initially, when we had put them in the French public school system, people had said that we were making a mistake. At that age — they were 8 and 9 —- [people said] it was going to be really hard for them to integrate, we shouldn’t be moving, and why don’t we stay in America. 

After 11 years, both children decided to go to university in the United States, and when a job opportunity came up, I applied. That’s how I was selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France to join the French consulate in Boston, where I was in charge of the innovation project that the embassy ran between France and America.

That lasted for four years from 2013, and then after that I worked for a biotech incubator in Cambridge called BioLabs. I retired from that at the end of last year.

Q. What did the innovation project involve?

A. Helping a number of startups from France to come to America, and American startups to go to France. I was running conferences — one of them was actually on energy storage — trying to get 100 or 200 people in the same room, discussing one topic.

That was very interesting because you were able to get access to the best labs in Harvard or MIT and the new companies that were making big strides. Everybody was very interested in participating in those conferences.

That was a fascinating period of my life, where I could meet with a lot of very, very smart people — much smarter than I am. 

Q. Was it your retirement that enabled you to consider running for public office?

A. Not quite. I have been interested in these fields for a long time, from working in the field both in France and in the States. The technologies involved in energy storage or new production technologies, like the wind farms that are being built, I have been involved with those professionally for some time.

From the time that we came back to the United States, I was quite involved with the life around Marblehead, including again singing with a chorus, the Festival Chorus, every winter and spring.

I was also getting more involved with an incubator in Beverly, North Shore Innoventure, which was was doing really well in all the competitions that the consulate was organizing. I was curious: What were they doing that was different from other incubators in the Boston area?

I got so involved that they asked me to be a member of their board. So, being involved in the community is not something that is brand new.

Ever since we moved to Marblehead, I have been interested in various groups in town. I mentioned the chorus. I also play some badminton — a bit less so recently, both because of COVID and my knees and getting more winded than I care to admit.

I also was quite interested in what was going on in Marblehead in terms of clean energy and the town warrant article that was passed in 2018 about having a decarbonization goal. At the time, I think it was more aspirational than anything else. Since that time, the Green Marblehead Committee has started to put in place all the details and develop a plan.

But if you are involved in or interested in all of those issues, it becomes very clear that electricity is one of the major actors of change.

Of course, it’s a very important aspect of everyday life, and we tend to take it for granted that, whenever we turn on the switch and — lo and behold — the light shines. It never fails, 100 percent of the time. If you know how complex it is behind that switch, all the way to the major plant probably 200 miles away, the system is so complex — it’s a little magical.

I’m an engineer, and engineering never fails to intrigue me. Every time I step into a plane, it’s a pretty heavy machine that’s sitting on the tarmac, and is it actually going to take off? And it does. That, too, is magical.

Q. From being involved in town, it sounds like you were not completely unknown. But you were challenging two incumbents for a seat on the Light Commission. How did you overcome that?

A. It was very clear from the outset that name recognition was not in my favor but very much in the favor of the two incumbents, and being a challenger with a weird name and from out of town was not going to help me very much.

So, I tried to get into contact with people and meet with the voters and introduce myself to them. I had a lot of meet-and-greets to get to know people and so that they could get to know me better and understand how I ended up on these rocky shores, why I thought I was qualified and why I wanted to run.

Q. It probably did not help that some people might view what the Light Commission does as being less important than what the Select Board or School Committee do.

A. In a way, I would say, “Rightly so.” The Select Board runs the town, so that’s kind of important. Nearly half of our budget is taken up by the schools, so that’s a big number. And many people have children in the school, so that certainly is working towards making people very interested in what happens on those boards or committees.

In a way, the success of the Light Department means that you don’t hear about it. I would like to keep it that way, that you never have to worry about the Light Department.

But last year, we had a town-wide power failure, and everybody felt it pretty strongly. If, like me, you depend on your coffee in the morning — I was just grouchy, that was not very problematic. But there are some people who are on ventilators who depend on electricity, so this is no joke.

The fact that the electric supply is something that we depend on so much in everyday life and we take for granted is good when everything goes well. But when issues arise, that’s very problematic for many people’s lives.

Q. What do Marblehead residents need to know about the Light Department?

A. When I talked with the voters — it’s a complicated system, and I found that most people don’t know how it works. I didn’t know how it worked, either. I learned that the Marblehead Light Department’s purview is bigger than the investor-owned utilities that serve the territory that surrounds us. 

The Light Department of Marblehead has to deal with more types of issues because we’re responsible for production, procurement, transmission and retail of electricity, whereas by law, the investor-owned utilities cannot both do production, transmission and retail. They would have too much market power.

As a “muni” — of which there are about 50 in Massachusetts — we are governed by Chapter 164 of the General Laws of Massachusetts. By law, the municipal department has exclusivity on production, procurement, distribution and sales of electricity to every resident in Marblehead. So, the purview is broader, and the issues are broader.

Add to this very broad scope an environment that is changing drastically on the regulatory and legal front, changing on the technical aspects of electricity, and changing on the use of electricity.

If we just focus on regulatory and legal, it’s both at the federal level, at the regional level, at the state level and, for the first time last year, there was a law that was pushing us that is giving us some constraint at the municipal level in terms of the electricity that we have and the percentage of our portfolio that has to be carbon-free.

On the technical front, there are new sources of production with wind farms that are being built off shore, with Hydro-Québec potentially being able to bring more electricity to the Northeast, and with solar. 

This is a revolution. We have gone from a world where all the energy was provided by coal — that lasted until the Second World War — to a world where gas was the main source of energy, and the last few years gas with fracking has taken over. Now, we’re finding that renewables are cheaper.

So, there is a sea change in the world of production, and there is a sea change in the world of usage, which we’re just starting to see in Marblehead. Every time you go out, you can see one more electric car.

If you look at the car industry, the EU has just passed a law that will make it impossible to sell an internal combustion engine after 2035. You have a company like Buick announcing publicly that it is going to sell only electric vehicles by 2030.

They are not committing economic suicide. They want to be a thriving company and bring in a lot of money to GM. 

If you have the major companies in the U.S. shifting the whole model range to electric cars, one has to ask the question: If Marblehead residents buy those cars — since I’ve been in Marblehead, we’ve gone from 20,000 to 22,000 cars, so buying cars is alive and well — and if the cars that can be bought are more and more electric, is our Light Department going to be able to supply enough electricity to charge all those cars?

Of course, nobody knows when that switch is going to become very fast. Right now, it’s just a few percent in the U.S. What experience shows in the world, though, is that, when the transition happens, what breaks that transition is production of cars.

We’re in a production-constrained mode right now. Whether you want to buy a Tesla, a Ford that’s electric or the new Mustang, you’re going to be lucky if you have it next year. Over the next couple of years, those restrictions will be lifted, and it will accelerate.

So, will we be ready to charge a lot of cars? I can tell you that today, if half of the cars in Marblehead were electric, we probably would not be able to charge them. 

That brings up a pretty simple question: How do we get from here to there? Do we have a plan to do so?

That’s what I ran on, trying to anticipate where the needs of the Marblehead Light Department are going to be in the future so that we can start preparing now.

We are a small town, our financial resources are limited, and we have got to be very judicious with the way we plan those investments and be strategic about it. We probably cannot do everything, so we have to make sure that our investments are done in a way that reinforces the reliability of the network and keeps the lights on.

Q. Are there other things that you see coming down the road that need to be addressed with the Light Department?

A. One of the major issues is having a strategic plan that looks 10, 15, 20 years ahead, because there are major changes that are happening all around us, and the world is going to catch up with us. It’s not like we can put a wall around Marblehead at Preston Beach and say, “OK, from here on, we are going to stay in this bubble of old historic Marblehead, and the change that happens elsewhere isn’t going to catch up with us.” That’s not the world that we are living in.

So, having a plan to adapt is important, but as we are going about that, the reliability aspects of the network are critical. I’m very conscious of the fact that the population of the residents of Marblehead are a diverse, heterogeneous group. You have some people who live on a fixed income, and you have some people for whom the price of electricity is not an issue.

But for many people it is absolutely indispensable, and it’s a big expense, so keeping the rates low is critical. 

But in order to get there, we need to anticipate. There are things that we can do that other communities have done that can help to keep the rates low, and that will be, again, with some technology investments.

It will be also by education and having people understand how Marblehead buys electricity, because our collective behavior has a strong impact on how much money we spend on buying electricity as a town. If we can change our behavior some — and this is the hardest thing to do —  it’s also extremely powerful.

There are many things that we need to do, as both a commission that is a small group of five people who are volunteers and all try their best, and the whole community. We need to work together to make sure that we can go into the future with no worries about electricity, and that we can keep forgetting about it. Therein lies the paradox.

We want to have people be able to forget about electricity, but in order to do so, they need to think about electricity.

Q. Anything else you are looking forward to working on?

A. As I was knocking on doors and talking with people, a lot of people asked me about solar, the Light Department’s policy on solar, and why we don’t have a solar farm. I think we could have a conversation about that.

What is very attractive about Marblehead is its system of democracy, idiosyncratic though it might be. Very few towns have a Select Board without having a strong executive. We have, as a town, all the levers to run our lives. The Town Meeting is an exercise in direct democracy. 

What people don’t realize, because the Light Commission has been a little bit of a forgotten race, is that we hold in our hands our fate in terms of energy. That is not true of the people of Boston or the people of Swampscott or Salem, because the major utilities — yes, you can write a letter to the president or the chair of the board of those very large companies, but the chance that you hear back from them is very small.

Here, it’s run by the people for the people. We have it in our hands to do whatever we want. So, it’s really incumbent upon Marbleheaders to take an interest.

Q. Now, for our traditional final question: How do you take your coffee?

A. With milk, in the morning. A lot of it. Without it, I’m not presentable. 

Q. No sugar?

A. A little bit of sugar.

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