Candidate Q & A: Adam Smith, Light Commission

The following represents the candidate’s responses to the Current’s Light Commission-specific questions. Jump back to Election Guide

Years in Marblehead: This will be our fourth summer in Marblehead since moving here in May 2020. We had previously lived on the West Coast but my wife, who grew up in Massachusetts, wanted to be closer to her family who still live here. We weren’t sure where we wanted to settle until we spent a romantic weekend in Marblehead at the Harbor Light Inn. We instantly fell in love with this beautiful place as did our three daughters, who attend three different schools in town.

Education and occupation: I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in International Relations. I worked at Google for nearly 17 years designing software systems and leading customer digital transformation projects. I recently joined Jasper AI leading business development.

Elected/appointed positions: I have served as a Light Commissioner since last September when I was appointed by the Select Board and Light Commission to fill a vacancy on the board. I am seeking election for the remaining year of my predecessor’s term.

What are the most significant issues facing the Light Department and how would you address them if elected?

As Light Commissioners, we have a responsibility to make sure the Light Department is prepared to meet the energy challenges of the future — by providing clean and reliable electricity at fair rates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Among our greatest challenges are:

  1. An inadequate infrastructure — I see more electric cars in town every week. In addition, more homeowners are switching to electric heat pumps and mini-splits to heat and cool their homes. Our linemen and engineers do a great job caring for every light pole, electric wire, transformer and substation in town, but they face a distribution system that is dated and not designed to handle an electricity load that is growing at a rate of 2% a year and is expected to double.

Voters need to know that if as few as three electric vehicles are all charging in the same neighborhood, it can overwhelm their local transformer on the pole. New transformers not already in stock currently take over a year to arrive. We need a capital plan to avoid outages and costly surprises for ratepayers.

We just voted to spend $8.7 million dollars to upgrade our nearly 70-year-old main town transformer and switching gear. Because we waited too long to act, it won’t be ready until 2025 and we spent $2 million more than we needed to. That project depleted most of our capital reserves, and we need to plan now for what might come next. Our new distribution manager noted that we have 15-20 years of deferred maintenance. I and others have pushed for greater public transparency by pushing for a five-year capital needs assessment.

  1. The increasing complexity of the system — Today’s electricity grid runs largely on software, which introduces new technology challenges and cybersecurity risks. Software introduces operational complexity even for simple tasks like reading the meters for accurate bills. That’s why I supported major software upgrades to ensure accurate meter readings on our bills and faster outage response times. I worked at Google for almost 17 years and learned first-hand how to ensure safety and privacy in designing software systems. Given that the Light Department has no full time IT staff, I’m committed to using these unique skills to help keep us safe and keep our local distribution system running smoothly.

There has been an ongoing discussion about the installation of solar panels on public buildings. Do you feel this is a good move? Why or why not?

I support more rooftop solar on schools, municipal buildings, homes and businesses to reduce electric rates for everyone by making Marblehead more energy independent and avoiding costly transmission charges to bring electricity into town from outside sources. We should design incentives that are equitable for all Marblehead residents and promote the town-wide benefits of adoption. I am currently leading our efforts to put solar on the roof of the new Brown School, which will be our first utility-scale “made in Marblehead” solar project which we hope to replicate at the High School after their new roof is done.

How can the Light Department reduce its dependence on fossil fuels?

The era of “going green without going in the red” is over. Our rates went up last winter in direct correlation with the cost of gas, which makes up over 50% of our current energy portfolio and has ongoing supply constraints that are driving up prices. I voted to buy more non-carbon emitting nuclear power from the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant starting in 2030 and will continue to look proactively for all economically sound opportunities to minimize our exposure to fossil fuels and their associated price fluctuations and health risks. In addition, we need to get ahead of state mandates to have 50% of our electricity come from non-carbon sources by 2030 to avoid costly penalties for non-compliance.

Some people believe there is a divide in the Light Department between those who favor traditional methods and those pushing for more environmentally-friendly practices. Do you agree with this view? If so, how would you propose to bring these two sides together?

Everyone on the Board is welcome to contribute their opinions and work towards a common goal. What frustrates me is the lack of willingness on the part of some to participate in the discourse and acknowledge that these changes are already happening whether one personally supports them or even believes that the climate crisis is real. Storms are stronger, summers are hotter and more electric vehicles are showing up every day. These aren’t green policies. This is the new normal. We can’t sit idly by and watch these things happen to us. We need to have the resources and the will to protect our town for whatever the future holds.

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