Regional Energy Hubs: Fuel for Local Energy Planning and Action in New Hampshire

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Photo Credit: Vital Communities

After two decades, the global community has committed to preserving the world’s forests and cutting the world’s use of carbon fuels at the 21st Conference of the Parties (Listen to our COP 21 webinar, here). While the progress of these global talks is heartening, the grassroots leaders taking action on the ground have truly been fueling the movement for a new energy future, pushing us forward even further and faster, knowing that there is no time to lose.

Energy and climate action in the Granite State has been growing quickly and exponentially over the years, thanks to the local-energy committee phenomenon and on-the-ground champions. And this work is poised to take a leap forward in 2016 with the expansion of the network of Regional Energy Hubs. The hubs represent a community of regional energy groups and coordinators dedicated to supporting local energy action.  Piloted in 2014 & 2015, this program responded to requests from local energy activists for greater regional collaboration and peer-to-peer support. 

Rising to a Challenge

The Local Energy Solutions Working Group (LES Work Group) is increasing support for regional energy leaders, expanding the program into new regions (yours could be one of them!), and providing dedicated funding for energy initiatives at the regional level. The expansion of the program is supported by the Putnam Foundation, Jane’s Trust Foundation, the You Have Our Trust Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and a $25,000 challenge grant from the Thomas W. Haas Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation; a challenge the Grassroots Fund met last week. 

“The challenge grant will really allow us to expand the network,” says the Grassroots Fund’s Energy and Climate Program Coordinator, Leigh Cameron.  “We saw after the first year that there were a lot of successes, a lot of potential, and a lot of interest in new groups that wanted to be brought on board and have a regional coordinator.” 

“One thing we hope to be able to do over the next year with funding from the Haas challenge grant,” Cameron adds, “is to allow regional energy roundtables to happen and then provide specific funding for projects at the regional level.”  Increased funding for the hub network will support regional coordinators and technical assistance as well as regional workshops, trainings, and convenings. These initiatives, like the hub program itself, came from suggestions by local energy committees at the Local Energy Solutions conferences.

“What we heard after every conference was that the groups really enjoyed and got a lot out of the sharing of information and ideas, but that was only happening once a year,” Cameron says. “So what could be done throughout the year to keep up that momentum, keep up that information sharing, so the information exchange could be more continuous and not just that once a year?”

“These hubs arose out of regions that already have a strong regional identity and where collaborative energy work and support can build off of pre-existing relationships and regional commonalities,” Cameron explains. “Each hub is led by one or more coordinators who have been recognized as a local champion and resource for energy work within the region.”

PAREI
One “hub”, the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI), started in 2003 before local energy committees were even a gleam in anybody’s eye, according to co-director Sandra Jones.

“We stumbled upon an issue that we had no idea would explode in the way that it did. We were one of the, if not the first, grassroots group of citizens focused solely on energy,” she says. “We just realized ‘Holy cow, this issue is the root of so many other issues, so many other problems in our world, let's do something, let's get the conversation started’.”  Keeping the conversation going has been a goal of PAREI ever since.

“A major component of our work here at PAREI is sharing what we've learned in the last 12 years,” Jones says. “When we started PAREI, we not only wanted to create a local energy initiative to get energy efficiency and renewable energy on people's minds, we also wanted to share our model and everything we were learning.”  Today, she adds, “we've done so many different size and types of renewable energy projects, we've interacted with so many homeowners, contractors, building managers and small business owners, that we have a lot of experience we can draw from and share with others.”

Continuing to make that kind of sharing possible is one of the group’s goals for 2016. “We have served as a type of hub from the day we started PAREI, but we’re very happy to be organizing a more coordinated and consistent effort to bring energy leaders together,” Jones says. “Our first goal as an energy hub is to do quarterly energy roundtables, meetings that don’t require preparation or speakers but are designed to be a time when leaders can network and share lessons learned and details about their municipal energy related projects. We want these round tables to purely be a time to share and get inspired.”

Jones says PAREI (serving communities from Sanbornton north to Thornton and Wentworth east to the Meredith and the Sandwich region) already has “buy-in from the Plymouth energy commission and the Holderness energy commission and we will likely hold the first roundtable at the Holderness Town Hall.  We plan to schedule our first one in early March.”

The group’s other big aim for 2016 is to resume the “energy barn raisers” for which PAREI became nationally famous, but with a new solar technology, Jones says. Energy raisers, modeled after the New England tradition of “barn-raising,” bring neighbors together to help each other install renewable energy systems on their homes. “We are developing a new energy-raiser program that will center around a small solar PV off-grid system that homeowners can integrate into their grid-tied home. ”  

She notes that for the group’s first decade, solar thermal was “the entry point into solar energy and that's no longer the case. Due to the falling costs, it's now solar PV. We think a mini-off grid system—that could power, for instance, an outlet in a home for charging cell phones, a modem or a land line—will create a new entry point for homeowners to learn about producing some of their own energy through a renewable source.”

New Energy Sources in the Ammonoosuc Region
Solar PV is at the heart of the upcoming regional coordinating efforts of the Ammonoosuc Regional Energy Team (ARET), another of the LES Work Group’s Energy Hubs.  Their “Solarize Ammonoosuc” campaign will be conducted this winter and spring in the towns of Bethlehem, Easton, Franconia, Littleton and Sugar Hill.   

The effort will educate local homeowners about solar energy and give them a chance to have a free estimate on installing a solar system and to take advantage of a just-renewed 30 percent federal tax credit.  Participants will also have an opportunity to take advantage of the power of group buying to reduce costs, because the more people who sign up in the ARET region, the lower the price goes, according to ARET Coordinator David Van Houten.  

But the Solarize campaign is not the first regional collaboration for ARET; Van Houten tells the story of two wood-energy efforts by the group that resulted in several towns saving money and cutting carbon emissions from local schools:“In November, 2013, ARET hosted the Ammonoosuc Biomass Heat Workshop,” Van Houten relates. “We noted that the principal and some school board members from Lafayette Regional School (LRS) in Franconia were in attendance. LRS is a K-6, serving the towns of Franconia, Easton, and Sugar Hill.

“We decided to follow up with them to see if switching to wood for heat might be a good option for the school. The board replied that they had been looking at options to their oil-fired system, since there was a state-mandated need to replace the underground oil storage tank at the school. They had set aside a fund of roughly $70,000 to remove and dispose of the old tank and install a new one, and wondered if it might make sense to re-purpose some of this to a different fuel system. They had looked at wood pellets and propane, and decided to go with propane.

“Bethlehem Elementary was also dealing with the need to replace an underground oil tank and the board there had set aside a fund of $65,000 for this purpose.  They had no plans to switch fuels. ARET brought up the idea of switching to wood pellets at the preliminary budget hearing in January 2014, but the administration and board dismissed the idea.”

ARET members reviewed the situations at both schools, Van Houten recounts, and decided these were opportunities to influence energy decisions for the better over the long term.  After looking at engineering studies and projections for fuel costs and other expenditures, the group intervened with both local boards.  The group also “reached out to our friends and supporters, encouraging them to show up” Van Houten says, at board and budget meetings to express local sentiment and to vote, when necessary.

“Someone came up with the slogan ‘NH is the Saudi Arabia of Wood’, which was a big hit. Also, who does the talking is often more important than what is said, and our experience in the community helped us in that regard,” he adds. There was a lot of leg work and education, but it was worth it in end. “The result is that both LRS and Bethlehem Elementary are in their first heating seasons with modern, automated, wood-pellet systems. Something like $60,000 worth of fuel oil will no longer be purchased annually to heat these facilities, and the money spent on fuel will stay in the region. The environmental impact of the schools is greatly reduced, which is a great message to send to the young people in these communities.”

New Tools for Local Energy Groups
A central part of community energy work is the development of “tools”—program and project components that can be codified in such a way that they are easy to follow or “plug in” for other groups.  ARET was the “guinea pig” for the development 
of the Strategic Energy-Action Toolkit, a decision-making matrix at the heart of the work coordinated by the LES Work Group. 

“We wanted to test it out to see if the initial design was useful and whether communities wanted it, so we reached out to the Ammonoosuc Hub and asked them if they'd pull multiple communities together for a training,” says Julia Dundorf, Executive Director of the Grassroots Fund. “We got tremendously helpful feedback on the toolkit and rejiggered and recast it around the feedback they gave us. So it's an example of the vision the work group had of these hubs would be a form of two-way communication and of exploration and innovation.”  Cameron cites another example as the LESWG built a new website.
  
“Another hub, the Wapack WREN (comprising 16 towns in eastern Cheshire and western Hillsborough counties) also provided critical feedback to us when we went through the redesign of our website about how to make that really user friendly. So there are two examples of how groups have been able to provide us with feedback to make the working group's work more effective,” she says.

Wapack, ARET, and the Mount Washington regional energy hub were the participants in the original energy hub pilot program that began in 2014, Cameron notes.  She points to the Mount Washington Valley Citizens for Energy Efficient Communities’ current effort to develop a regular energy feature in their regional newspaper to ensure that energy issues and opportunities are highlighted and stay on everyone’s radar.

“They've been able to get a lot of information and resources out to the general population about energy efficiency and other energy issues that folks should be aware of,” Cameron says.  “So they are significantly increasing public energy education as a result of that,” adding that that type of work and projects of the other hubs “has really helped our thinking about programming and how we can use this kind of format and networking across our other issue areas within the Grassroots Fund.”

Seacoast Hub Formation
The youngest of the current hubs is in the formative stages in the Seacoast region, where Charlie Forcey of Durham, chair of his town’s very effective energy committee, is the coordinator.  A hub “had not formed organically in this area yet, and the Local Energy Solutions work group thought a little nudge would be enough to make that a reality,” Forcey says. With the Durham Energy Committee as host and Forcey as coordinator, the first organizational meeting for the new hub will take place in February, where “we’ll gather representatives from other committees together for a planning meeting “We'll have a bigger meeting of energy committees in the Seacoast in the spring,” Forcey says.  One of the things his committee will share, another of the tools for local energy action, is Durham’s energy ordinance.

“Durham passed an ordinance that requires anyone asking for a permit for new construction or renovation to respond to a checklist of energy improvement options and then to have a conversation with a member of the energy committee and the code enforcement officer,” Forcey explains, noting the ordinance also calls for the town to use the latest printed codes relating to energy."

“So instead of lagging with the rest of New Hampshire on an older code, we’re required to use the latest printed code,” Forcey explains, “which makes a big difference in things like insulation values and other things that are required. So that's the beginning.”

But the committee realized that inspection, where the enforcement happens is usually “long down the road, when the budgets have run out, the builder’s under stress, the owner is out of money…in other words, it's a very bad time to say you have to insulate the cellar ceiling or add Tyvek or seal this or that—its a very negative time in most building processes,” Forcey says.  So the ordinance moved things to the beginning of the process, in the permit application.

“One of the bigger things, ironically, that comes out of this, is small concessions like bike racks, bicycle parking, things like that that have a significant effect on our traffic patterns.  We've had a few renewable energy systems promised but mostly it's really on a smaller scale.  So that's the idea; an energy checklist, and a conversation,” Forcey says.  “Obviously, we yield to market conditions, but it's just an attempt to have that discussion when the budgets are still being formed, before everyone's broke and they’re just trying to get out with their shirts on.”

Forcey says he and his committee are gratified that other committees want to hear about their ordinance and checklist, and notes they will be happy to make it available, citing it as one way regional energy hubs can work.

“I think it's going to be an enormous accelerant to progress. We already field questions on our property-tax exemptions for solar installations and we've shared that with the number of communities, especially Lee's energy committee. We've shared a lot recently with another group about how to run an EV vehicle event like we did this summer. There's been a lot of interest in our power-purchasing agreements that we've done, under which our solar arrays are no-money-down arrangements, which is really helpful in getting things started. So I think there's going to be a lot of great things to do, to discuss, the checklist, of course, being one thing we can easily share,” Forcey says, adding that the regional hub approach also adds a kind of safety net.

“At least one energy committee asked specifically for this. They were in a down moment and wanted to get a little energy and projects to start up,” Forcey says, noting Durham was at a “should we go on” point a year and a half ago.

“I'm sure we will have that time come again and will want to lean on people and get some new energy too,” he says.  “One of the things that makes the regional energy hub concept so wonderful, is when you're down to one or two people and the local group is flagging, you’ve still got somebody to lean on and go and talk to so you don't completely lose the thread.”  He also notes that the “toolkit” concept behind the local energy work makes it easier to get things done.

“That's one of the great things about local energy committees; you can borrow ideas and be going 55 miles an hour on day two without burning out your volunteers and using up all your energy just getting there.  So that's fantastic.”

How the Hubs Will Help
Dundorf agrees, noting “not every town could or should have an energy committee because they might be small or in essence pulling everybody off the conservation committee to be on the energy committee.”  In fact, she says, hub members and leaders don’t even have to be on energy committees. “The hubs provide an opportunity for local leaders that aren't necessarily on a local energy or climate group to work together and to collaborate without going the extra step of actually forming a local or ad hoc committee.

Cameron says the hubs can pick up a lot of slack for local committees, which “are usually volunteer and they often meet fairly infrequently.  There’s a lot of work that they could be doing, but it's hard with a volunteer group when there is so much work that they need to do in terms of finding resources to implement projects,” she explains, noting that one of the benefits of the hubs and coordinators is in creating “a shared capacity and efficiency that allows the local groups to focus locally and innovate and experiment at the local level in their own communities while having resources and information that's readily available at that regional level.”

Dundorf adds,  “It’s about shared work, shared creativity, where the hubs are getting together, they are inspiring and co-creating, and it's amazing.   We'd gotten the hubs together a few months back and to hear them interacting about their challenges and also what they're working on and also building off the thinking and sharing - is really exciting to witness and it's something that doesn't happen just with the single energy committees. “ 

“Even when we have a conference day,” she says, referring to the LES annual conferences, “it doesn't allow for that level of interaction and co-creation.  These were theories about the value of hubs that we’re already seeing playing out as a worthwhile addition to the support of energy committees and communities."

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