The former longtime mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, is settling into a new job as president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council.
Joseph Curtatone, who took over leadership of the regional clean energy group in January, is being tasked with expanding the organization’s focus to include equity and environmental justice.
As the Northeast struggles to curb emissions and adapt to a changing climate, Curtatone sees an opportunity to better unite industry and policymakers to decarbonize in a way that ensures traditionally disadvantaged groups share in the benefits.
“Our mission is now to lead a just and rapid transition to an equitable clean energy future,” Curtatone said. “As we seek to do the work around climate action we need to amplify voices that have the closest connection to the pain.”
‘All our work is connected’
The energy council, known as NECEC, was founded in 2006 to be a voice for the emerging clean energy industry in New England. Today, it has expanded to include New York and has thousands of members across the region. In recent years it has pushed for adoption of state-level 100% clean electricity policies, continued procurements of offshore wind energy and battery storage capacity, and participation in regional clean transportation efforts like the paused Transportation and Climate Initiative.
Curtatone’s concern for the environment burgeoned during his time as a city alderman in the late 1990s, when he realized that helping young people, seniors, and other residents required attention to issues like open space, air pollution, and recycling. Curtatone himself has lingering respiratory issues he attributed to growing up near the very busy McGrath Highway, he said.
As he delved into municipal work — eight years on the city council and nine terms as mayor that ended in 2021 — climate change work became a natural part of supporting his constituents, he said.
“As mayor I learned from the very beginning how all our work is connected,” he said. “I really embraced the approach of seeing the community as this complex ecosystem.”
Somerville, a city of 81,000 people located just north of Boston, changed rapidly during Curtatone’s tenure. Once often thought of as an also-ran cousin to neighboring Cambridge, Somerville is now a community with a reputation for smart development, progressive ideals, and environmental action. In 2018, the city released a 22-part action plan aimed at mitigating climate change, adapting to its effects, and ensuring equity. A subway line extension into the city started operation in March.
As a result, Curtatone was a natural candidate for the position at NECEC when it opened up, said Greg King, a board member who co-chaired the search committee after previous president Peter Rothstein announced his departure. King said the organization had become somewhat insular, focusing too narrowly on the promotion of policies to bolster clean energy businesses. In searching for a new leader, the board wanted someone who could help extend the council’s activity and reach into the area of environmental justice.
“We saw a need for injection of new blood, new spirit,” King said. “Joe is coming into the organization with a real interest in trying to expand the influence.”
Industry as a leader
In Curtatone’s new role, he said, his strategy will be inspired by his time presiding over the transformation of his home city. To translate this approach to his work at the council, he said, he will focus on developing a core, shared vision of what the organization’s goals are and measure every choice against those aims.
“Somerville was able to transcend and advance as a community because we spoke with one voice,” he said.
He pointed, for example, to the Green Line extension project. The state first announced plans to extend the subway line in 1990. The next 32 years were marked by debate, lawsuits, and delays. Throughout it all, Curtatone said, Somerville residents and leaders continued to push for the project, which the community said would open up economic opportunities while cutting back on pollution.
“I was overcome with the emotion of, ‘Oh my god, this is finally here,’” he said. “The green line [extension] is a testimony to the people of Somerville, their values, their tenacious and relentless activism to pursue not just what was promised, but what was just.”
Achieving the goal of just clean energy growth will require the speed and new ideas the private sector can offer, as well as supportive policies and funding from public leaders, Curtatone said.
Among his first moves to tap into the innovation of the private sector was choosing a new location for council’s offices, moving the operation from Boston to Somerville’s Greentown Labs, a business incubator that hosts clean-tech startup companies. NECEC was already looking for a new space and Greentown fit Curtatone’s vision for the organization’s future.
“If we want to talk earnestly and genuinely about innovation in climate tech and cleantech, we have to see it up close,” Curtatone said. “The ideas and innovations coming out of Greentown are going to have global impact, so it’s important for us to be in the very depths of that work, to see it up close.”
On the policy side, he intends to focus on city-level action. He envisions a system of sharing and scaling up best practices from cities, like Somerville, that have taken action to lower emissions and adapt to climate change with communities that are still in the process of figuring out the right policies.
Crucial to the success of this plan, however, will be the willingness to listen to stakeholders across the board, he said.
“Policymakers affect the marketplace,” he said. “But industry has to be leading with us — we should not rely on the public sector alone to solve this.”