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Granite Geek: Seacoast 'Experiment' Combines Solar Electricity and Efficiency Efforts

Joy Jackson

It’s easy to say that you want to use less electricity and even easier to just dream about doing something to generate it in an eco-friendly way. But how often do those well-meaning impulses translate to action?

A group on the Seacoast called Energize 360 is attempting to use its collective resources to reduce energy use and increase clean energy production. For more on this effort and those like it elsewhere in New Hampshire is David Brooks. He’s a reporter for The Concord Monitor He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

David, you were speaking with Charles Forcey of Durham, who said he had some experience running these educational meetings about energy efficiency, but didn’t see much follow-up on the part of the attendees.

This is something you’ll hear very commonly. This has been going on for a while. You want to have clean energy, so you have a meeting at the library where you hand out brochures about what solar power and insulation can do. You can cut down your energy use by switching to LED bulbs, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. People say, “Wow, this is awesome!” But they don’t do anything because it involves spending money.

Forcey had been involved with a number of towns and municipal energy committees. These tend to be focused on: How do we reduce power costs in town? So how do we use less electricity at the police station or town hall? Should we install solar panels? That kind of stuff. That’s a little more focused.

But they were trying to think of: how do we get it out to residences, to normal human beings like you and me. That’s a lot tougher.

So this was a group effort.

Right, a number of energy committees in town—Durham, Portsmouth, those places on the Seacoast—were getting together and expressing their frustration and desire to move on. So they had this idea for an experiment.

What’s the nature of that experiment? How is it getting people to open their wallets?

It’s a two-phase program. Five towns are participating right now and seven more are going to join and will be open through August 1.

Basically they have these programs—they’ve put out an RFP, a request for proposals, as businesses do, and said: “We want a solar company and we want a home insulation/energy efficiency company to bid on this project, because we can bring you more customers, but we want you to meet certain standards.” So they got some companies to do it and they have solar company ReVision Energy and an efficiency company called Yankee Thermal and Imaging.

Now they’re going out to people in the town and saying, “We can give you a free energy audit and lower costs on certain things.”

This is a spur to do not just solar and not just energy efficiency but possibly both. Traditionally we have one or the other. You learn how to put more insulation in your attic or you learn how to put solar panels on your roof, but you don’t do both. They’re trying to present both as options at the same time to see if they can increase interest.

Who is running this program?

It is entirely volunteer. They have a tiny bit of funding left over from something else—a fund used to buy donuts for meetings. But these are folks that are spurred by, you know—they’re tree-huggers worried about climate change, or they want to save money on their power bills. That sort of thing.

And we should be clear that this is geared toward business owners or municipalities but homeowners.

They don’t pay you anything. They’re not going to buy you solar panels. They’re going to help you find out whether solar panels or energy efficiency—just putting more insulation in the attic maybe, which you should do—maybe do it a little more cheaply than you could on your own.

Tell us about the aspect of the project that allows a community to vote on a project that doesn’t benefit them directly.

Part of the RFP for companies doing this is that for every job they get, for every contract signed as a result of this, they donate a little—either time, insulation/energy efficiency time or solar panel time. They put that into a pot for the town. At the end of the couple of months this is running, the people involved can vote on what they want to do with it. So there can be a certain amount of stuff that can be put toward low-income housing. If that building is leaky as all get out, they can fix that. Or the fire station or a non-profit. Something like that. It might be a little more of a prompt for people to open their wallets.

Has something like this been done before in New Hampshire?

Not that I know of, not exactly like it—particularly combining the solar and energy, as well as that community aspect. There are a number of programs that combine efforts from a number of towns. Frequently they’re oriented around solar power. That seems to be thing that gets people excited the most. There’s one in the Upper Valley, and there’s one in Keene. I’m sure there are others I don’t know about, trying to get people to adopt more solar power.

This struck me as a bigger step, a more complicated step. Frankly, they’re not certain it’s going to work. Charles Forcey told me it’s quite possible that, when all is said and done, this won’t work any better than anything else, so they’ll try something else. It’s an experiment, but it’s a worthwhile one.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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