Venu Rao and his colleagues at the Hollis Energy Committee in Hollis, NH, are turning the handle on the town’s fossil-fuels spigot. Their goal is to shut it off completely by 2029.
They’ve already had the heating and hot water systems in the town hall and the police department swapped out for wood-pellet systems. These changes cut the energy costs by 50 percent and kept the money spent on fuel in New Hampshire.
“We implemented energy efficiency and energy conservation measures using a $25,000 federal grant, helping the town save more than $65,000 a year in electric bills,” says Rao, who serves as the committee’s chair. “And our new power-purchasing agreement, with 12 towns in the Nashua Regional Planning Commission (NRPC), added $64,000 in savings in the town’s annual electric bill,” he adds.
But they have a ways to go, including making thirteen municipal and school buildings in the town fossil-fuel free for all heating, hot water, and electricity systems and finding ways to get fossil fuels out of the town’s transportation needs.
The committee took a major step forward last year with a preliminary feasibility study to determine whether the town’s schools could have space and water heated with wood. The study, done by the New Hampshire Wood Energy Council, showed promising possibilities for a wood-chip district heating system for four school buildings that consume about 80 percent of Hollis’s energy.
The results of the preliminary study were so encouraging that the energy committee will do a second feasibility study to look at an integrated bio-fuel solution for all the municipal and school buildings for hot water and heating. This next level of the study will include specific details about equipment and system costs, which the town would need to support a bond issue.
“The first study was funded by Wood Energy Council, but the actual study was conducted by Tim Maker, CEO and president of Community Biomass Systems of Montpelier, VT, an independent consultant who has 35 years of experience in sustainable energy solutions for heating and hot water,” Rao says. The second feasibility study, to look at expanding biomass heat to all of the remaining town buildings, was funded by Hollis Energy Committee, with help from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund.
“A big factor for us in the work this committee is doing is how they continue to learn the lessons of sustainability and cutting fossil-fuel use and carbon emissions and their willingness to serve as an example to others,” Grassroots Fund Executive Director, Julia Dundorf, said.
And part of the lesson they have to teach is about building support and cooperation in their town, Rao notes. “It took a long time to get to this point, but now we have selectmen, members of the town Budget Committee and the Hollis School Board who are all on board with this project,” he says. “As a matter fact, the woodchip based District Heating System and 100KW PV Solar Farm project is spearheaded by Hollis School Board members.”
A 100kW solar farm? Yes, Rao says that’s the first step in establishing solar farms to address 2.3 GWhs of the town's yearly electric energy needs. “The 100kW solar array is a pilot project that will provide power to the wood-chip based district heating plant.”
“The power generated through PV solar will be displayed online at the Hollis Elementary School, the town hall, and at the transfer station,” Rao says. “This will educate the town residents as to how much electrical energy is being generated using solar, how much the town is saving from the solar electric, and how many tons of carbon dioxide we are keeping from the atmosphere.”
Of course, completion of study is not what turns off the fossil fuel tap. Once the feasibility study is complete, Hollis Energy Committee members will be taking the message to the residents of Hollis to explain the benefits of a woodchip-based central, district-heating system to their fellow Hollis residents.
Rao and his colleagues are well qualified to deliver the message: two of the Energy Committee members are scientists, one member is a former state assembly woman, one is a very successful entrepreneur, one has extensive knowledge managing energy for commercial buildings; three of the members have installed solar PV panels on their homes, one has installed a geothermal system for heating and cooling, and all are passionate about promoting sustainable living, walking the walk.
But the members acknowledge that transportation will be “the long pole in the tent” of the plan to be fossil-fuel free by 2029, because finding feasible, non-fossil alternatives to fuels for municipal vehicles presents significant obstacles in technology and cost. Meanwhile, the Hollis Energy Committee is planning to form a consortium with the Nashua Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) to procure wood pellets and/or wood chips. “We already have a working model for this,” Rao notes, because of the current power-purchasing agreement with NRPC towns.
Rao says the efforts of the committee are driven by a few simple ideas. “We are getting back to living sustainably by moving over to renewable energy sources; the fuel dollars we spend are used locally to improve the local economy and create local jobs; there are great savings to Hollis taxpayers.”
His own ethic is represented in a trip he took to Mount Desert Island, to serve as the keynote speaker at a recent kick-off event, where residents are at work to become fossil-fuel free by 2030. “Spread the word,” he says “so that all the towns slowly move towards renewable energy sources and leave a cleaner and healthier world to our children and to their children.
UPDATE: On Friday, March 18, we shared the story of the Hollis, NH, Energy Committee and their work to meet a goal of a fossil-fuel-free town by 2029. What we didn't know at the time was that, at a meeting of the town's school budget committee the night before, "$100K was approved to analyze various renewable-energy options and provide a recommendation for a bond to develop District Heating system supplemented by PV Solar and Solar Thermal solutions," according to Energy Committee Chair, Venu Rao. The recommendations that emerge from the study the allocation funds have to be ready by 2017 Budget Meeting, Rao says.