Communities explore paid roles to reduce energy use; shared positions being considered

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 02-17-2023 7:10 PM

When members of the all-volunteer Shelburne Energy Committee found out that the Cowell Gymnasium was the biggest municipal energy user in the town, they worked together to make a change.

The group obtained a Green Communities grant of about $120,000 to convert the building’s oil heating system to a much more energy-efficient electric mini-split heating and cooling system. This plan is still in the works, but when done it will reduce the town’s carbon footprint while saving taxpayers money.

In most towns, this work is done by unpaid volunteers, but as the push for a reduction in energy consumption becomes greater, it is leading some towns to consider paid positions to perform the work.

These energy committees across the region go by a variety of names, but all have more or less the same goal: to reduce the municipality’s carbon footprint. This comes in different efforts, such as applying for grants, community outreach to educate businesses and homeowners on more sustainable choices, and working to reduce municipal energy use via capital projects on town-owned buildings. Many of these committees were formed after the Green Communities Act was passed in 2008 and the Mass Save program began in 2009. Both of these initiatives supplied grants to reduce energy consumption, so the committees were created to capitalize on this newly available money.

When speaking about Gill’s clean energy efforts, Energy Commission member Claire Chang explained her board has considered hiring a part-time position, but understands funding is a large constraint.

“With these small towns, there isn’t a tax base to support a paid position,” she said.

Gill has considered sharing a part-time project manager position with other towns, but stopped before writing a job description, fearing budgetary constraints.

Shelburne obtained a grant to hire an eight-hour-a-week employee to focus on its clean energy work. Cynthia Boettner was hired as an energy advocate to do outreach for Mass Save’s Community First Program. Her outreach programs include tabling at events and hiring experts to teach the public about upgrading their homes to be more sustainable.

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“Our energy advocate certainly spends way more hours per week devoted to the goals listed above than any of us Energy Committee members do,” Tom Johnson, chair of the Shelburne Energy Committee, explained in an email.

Much of the work performed in Shelburne, and other towns, continues to be volunteer-driven. Johnson said because there are volunteers working, they are able to focus on any project they think is important instead of following specific goals. For instance, the Shelburne Energy Committee worked with Mohawk Trail Regional School to have solar panels installed.

“The volunteer and paid work all plays together. We are all pieces of a puzzle that are important,” Boettner said.

Volunteer members of the Warwick Buildings and Energy Committee stretch what they do as a committee, too. While Warwick is part of the Massachusetts Green Communities program and the board applies for grants to reduce energy consumption, members also perform work on the municipal buildings. Committee member Janice Kurkoski explained the committee includes an electrician, a mechanic, a carpenter and someone who does window restoration. With these skills, they provide a variety of services for town buildings.

“For us, we are mostly tradespeople, so grant writing did not come naturally. We do it anyway,” she said. Warwick has received about $540,000 in Green Communities grants since joining in 2014.

There is no money in the town budget for hiring an employee for the committee, she said, so the work will continue to completely rely on volunteers. The committee includes committed public servants, Kurkoski noted, with four of the six members having served for the last 15 years.

“We are a small enough town that we are appreciated by people. The thankfulness is our pay,” Kurkoski said.

On the other hand, the Energy Committee in Athol has the Planning and Community Development Director Eric Smith to do much of the legwork for sustainability projects in town. Athol also recently received funding for an assistant planning director. Between the volunteers, Smith and a regional planning consultant in Worcester County, they have created a municipal decarbonization plan for Athol that will reduce municipal carbon emissions by 85% by 2050.

“I don’t see how it could be achievable with just volunteers,” Smith said, noting that the volunteer Energy Committee of Athol mostly exists to provide direction and leadership. Smith said he can only imagine how difficult it must be for small towns with limited resources to meet the state’s decarbonization goals unless they receive help from the state and regional services.

One way energy committees in different towns are able to pool resources and knowledge is through the coalition of Franklin County energy committee groups. While this is not an official body, Bob Dean, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ director of regional services, organizes a meeting for members to come together quarterly. These meetings allow people in small towns to share ideas and work together. Dean also brings speakers from state agencies, nonprofits or academic institutions to teach about topics the group is interested in.

Dean noted ideas often circulate in the group about hiring a shared position in multiple towns — someone who can apply for sustainability grants and perform other duties related to municipal energy consumption. According to Dean, FRCOG can set up sharing arrangements, create contracts and help finalize cost-sharing agreements between towns.

“Funding is key,” he said.

“These people are volunteers and don’t have a lot of experience with energy projects,” Dean said. “They are mostly concerned citizens trying to do something good for their town.”

Bella Levavi can be reached at blevavi@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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