Many N.H. communities are turning to local solutions in the global fight against climate change
Jessica Dunbar has cared about the environment for as long as she can remember. She went to school for environmental science. She recycles. She even worked for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services for a while.
But she didn’t dwell on climate change, or the threat it posed to her life and her community, until she had kids. Then, she said, it was like her life had been extended by a hundred years.
“I don't know why, but it just hit me all of a sudden,” she said. “I had this all too clear vision in my mind of how fragile the world was.”
As Dunbar started paying more attention to climate news, she found herself feeling scared for the future and for her children. So she started looking into what she could do to make a difference, like getting a heat pump or a more fuel efficient car.
But small, personal changes didn’t feel like enough. So Dunbar, who lives in Bow, decided to turn to her neighbors. She's now leading an effort to restart the town's previously dormant energy committee. She hopes it can be a place to connect with other residents who want to learn about how to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and find ways to adopt more of those solutions in their community.
“I was in a panic,” Dunbar said. “And what got me through that panicked moment was, 'OK, what can I do to try to make a difference?' Because I have to at least try.”
As climate change threatens New Hampshire communities with rising sea levels, increasing heat, worse storms and strange winters, New Hampshire leaders have been slower to take action with strong policy responses than their counterparts in neighboring states. But volunteer-led efforts at the local level are playing a leading role in New Hampshire’s energy transition, encouraging municipalities to adopt interventions like weatherizing buildings and installing solar panels to help mitigate climate change.
Local energy committees, like the one Dunbar recently launched in Bow, started gaining steam as organizers in New Hampshire worked to build awareness on climate issues ahead of the 2008 presidential election. Around that time, communities across the state started passing resolutions calling for a stronger federal response to climate change, and some residents started forming their own local groups focused on saving energy and reducing emissions.
Today, local energy committees are helping more than one hundred towns reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Still, local leaders say gaining momentum for energy projects at the municipal level has been difficult to manage given limited time, resources and support from the state.
“It would be nice to be part of a larger team,” said David Van Houten, who has been involved with local energy issues in his town, Bethlehem, for 15 years.
Van Houten said he envies those who live in other states where political leaders are taking more decisive action to respond to climate change. He hasn’t seen a clear vision for that in New Hampshire at the state level and feels like local energy committees are often left without the support they need.
New Hampshire has passed legislation in the last few years to give communities more options for energy transitions at the municipal level. But Melissa Elander, who works with communities in the North Country to implement energy projects through Clean Energy New Hampshire, said the state has provided little support for energy committees.
“I would have to say that most of what I see happening at the municipal level is happening largely without state support,” she said. “It’s a very, very small percentage of funds that can come from the state.”
When asked about the critiques that the state has not done enough to take action on these issues, New Hampshire Department of Energy spokesperson Rorie Patterson said the agency “recognizes the risk posed by climate change and that actions are required to mitigate those risks.” Patterson also pointed to the department’s efforts to implement clean energy programs authorized by lawmakers and Gov. Chris Sununu.
While Patterson did not directly address a question from NHPR about how the state views the role of local communities in its energy strategy, she noted that the agency oversees rebate and grant programs that have supported energy projects at the municipal level.
Reframing climate conversations
In some communities, those leading the way on local energy committees have struggled to convince their neighbors to take an interest in climate solutions — or talk about climate change at all.
In Bethlehem, Van Houten said many people get interested in energy issues when the price of fuel oil is high, but it can be hard to keep attention sustained for the long haul.
After realizing that some in his community were turned off by talk of climate change, he started to reframe the conversation. Instead of focusing on how projects like energy efficiency retrofits at the town hall could slow down global warming, he’s tried to emphasize how they save taxpayers money.
“The whole Yankee independence and ingenuity and frugality thing rings pretty strong up here,” he said.
These days, Van Houten is working on bringing more solar to Bethlehem: on the roof of the library, atop the highway garage and behind the town’s elementary school. But he said it’s been a long road, trying to find funding and rally community support while also parsing through the complicated energy policies that might influence these projects. He does this work as a volunteer, on top of all the other obligations that make up his life.
“I quit every year. I just don't tell anybody, and I show up at the next meeting,” Van Houten said, wryly. “Sometimes I quit twice a year.”
But he knows his work is important — and that it could help spur action elsewhere. Van Houten is part of a regional effort to encourage the development of sustainable energy practices with a few other towns in the region. The Ammonoosuc Regional Energy Team, founded in 2008 by local energy committee members in the area, takes lots of different approaches to encourage energy efficiency across the North Country, from organizing educational fairs to advocating for a solar array at the Profile High School in Bethlehem.
Small drops in a big bucket
Jim Fitzpatrick, the chair of Franconia’s energy commission and a co-lead on that regional energy team, has seen firsthand how local energy projects like the ones Van Houten is championing in Bethlehem can inspire voters in other communities.
When Fitzpatrick and others on Franconia's local energy committee pitched a new solar array on this year’s town warrant, they expected some debate. They gathered information for a detailed discussion about how the town could pay for it and how it might benefit the community, preparing to defend the plan to their fellow voters.
But when the issue came up at town meeting, the community didn’t need much convincing. Fitzpatrick thinks the visibility of similar energy projects in the area helped to win voters over.
“Bethlehem’s doing it, Sugar Hill’s doing it,” he said. “Why ain’t Franconia doing it?”
Franconia’s planned array is also relatively small and inexpensive. It’ll cost the town, up-front, a bit less than a new police cruiser and a skid loader — two other items voters approved on this year’s town warrant.
Fitzpatrick is excited about the panels and the clean power they’ll deliver to three town buildings. But even though he and other local energy advocates are making progress to steer their communities away from fossil fuels, he worries these solutions aren’t matched with the global scale of the problem. Franconia’s new solar array covers just a portion of the yard behind the town hall, about the length of a bowling lane.
To Fitzpatrick, it feels like a small drop in a big bucket.
“I love the fact that we’re doing this in town,” he said. “It ain’t gonna make any difference, in the big picture.”
But the work that local energy volunteers are propelling in towns like Franconia and Bethlehem is making some difference.
According to data from Clean Energy New Hampshire, projects in Coos and northern Grafton Counties alone are saving more than a million kilowatt hours every year. That’s about enough to power about 125 New England homes — power that electricity generation plants no longer have to provide.