Cutting Energy Use In Your Town

Now that your town or school system has pared every other cost to the bone, have they turned to cutting energy expenditures as a way to help balance the budget? Maybe because there are a lot of “green thinking” folks where I live, energy usage has become a hot topic among our volunteer school committee members and town administrators. And, we have three budgets – town, K-8 school system and regional high school – which makes things even more “interesting.”

About a year ago, I attended a K-8 school committee meeting at which energy use and its financial impact was discussed. The schools’ head of operations presented some pragmatic, rapid payback, steps he had already taken. Smart. The “low hanging fruit,” things like installing detectors in rooms to turn lights on and off when people entered and exited, were already saving the schools thousands of dollars annually. It makes sense to address straightforward conservation measures first.

Then we heard about the energy generation side; everything from photovoltaic and solar thermal arrays on school roofs to large wind turbines in back of the baseball fields to geothermal power to fuel cells. All this information was based on the conclusions of firms – consultants, manufacturers, installers – solicited to tell the schools about their particular area of specialization. Turned out there were no easy answers, nothing that addressed how the financially strapped school system would pay to implement the proposed solutions, and no good ways for lay people to sort out the operational and economic plusses and minuses of each energy-generating technology.

My take-away from that meeting, colored by experience in renewable energy consulting, was that a rifle-shot, siloed approach to resolving energy needs doesn’t work. A holistic methodology is needed.

A true systems approach, even for one part of a small municipality, isn’t easy. First, it requires understanding your energy demand (in this case, the schools’): how much of what type of energy is needed during which times of day. Then, the demand has to be mapped against the local available energy sources from the grid, solar insolation, wind, geothermal resources . . . the list goes on. Now, figure in the economics of each energy technology, and the financial and other decision criteria for the wide array of products available on the market that could deliver the energy. Don’t forget to consider the governmental incentives and tax implications – Federal, state and local – that attach to the different solutions.

Does your community have all the resources to make rational energy decisions?

So, how can towns and school systems do what’s best, or at least reasonable? A resident of one area town happens to chair an engineering department at a local university. He helped assemble a team of students to research and model parts of the problem. Their efforts didn’t produce a definitive answer, but did give the town better knowledge from which to work. In my town, an “Energy and Sustainability Green Ribbon Committee” has been formed to develop approaches to better energy use and ways to fund them. It’s composed of local volunteers with a sampling of energy know-how and understanding of municipal workings. That’s a good step. But, as one member of the group who’s on the K-8 school committee commented to me, “We still need all the help we can get.” From where?

Here’s my idea: create a for-profit entity, perhaps based within a university, composed of a cross-section of energy sector, engineering, business, and public policy experts. It would deliver to towns, cities and school systems the information, analysis, evaluation, and related services – including links to capital – needed to help them make and implement decisions about renewable energy alternatives.

Yes, I’m working on it.

–  Posted by Tom Witkin

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Posted in Blogroll, Collaboration, Energy, Tales From the Road, Uncategorized

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