Dartmouth energy program encourages community engagement

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2022 10:18:01 PM
Modified: 10/16/2022 10:17:56 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth sophomore Ella Briman is interested in the impact of high energy costs on low-income homeowners, but she’s more interested in figuring out real solutions for how to reduce price burden.

In the college’s Energy Justice Clinic, she found an avenue to put her academic interests into practice.

The group, which hopes to galvanize undergraduates to address energy needs in the Upper Valley head on, introduced Briman to COVER Home Repair, which is based in downtown White River Junction. Soon after she attended one of the nonprofit’s volunteer work days and helped weatherize a manufactured home in Woodstock.

“Hanover is a wealthy town, and Dartmouth students are really privileged to go to school there,” said Briman, a governmental and environmental studies major. “I’m glad for the opportunity to look beyond Hanover, to places where there really is immediate need, and where we as students can be helpful.”

Anthropology Professor Maron Greenleaf and Sarah Kelly, a research associate in the Geography Department, formed the Energy Justice Clinic a year ago. They hoped to bridge the direct energy needs of the Upper Valley with the energy expertise that the students in their classes are cultivating.

Many members of the clinic are enrolled in or have completed Greenleaf’s anthropology course, “Environmental Justice.” The class examines how environmental harms are experienced unequally, and how mainstream climate activism can sometimes gloss over the needs of the most vulnerable.

“It’s important to burst that Dartmouth bubble a bit, and to let them know some of these problems surrounding energy are taking place just beyond their field of vision,” Greenleaf said.

Community energy issues can be opaque — especially for students living on campus — but rocketing fuel and electric prices are bringing the problem to the fore.

“In a world suffering from climate and other crises, we believe that integrating research, learning, and service can be of direct benefit,” the group writes in its mission statement. The clinic complements the material from class, but also has an independent existence. Students stay on with the group well after the 10-week class ends.

Their charge is a global one. The Energy Justice Clinic also researches energy case studies in the western part of the country, and even abroad. But fuel and electric prices in New England – the average price for heating fuel in New Hampshire is currently a little under five dollars a gallon, 60% more than it was this time last year – have added a sense of urgency, and a real call for implementation, to their work back home.

Sustainable Hanover, whose members are appointed by the town’s selectboard, committed to a goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2030. The committee is looking to ensure that the town’s energy transition is equitable, and doesn’t overburden lower-income members of the community.

But when it came to implementation, the committee needed help in turning that ideal into an actionable set of goals.

The Energy Justice Clinic was brought in to conduct energy efficiency audits on some of Hanover’s older homes. It also sent a survey geared towards students and staff to help evaluate their energy costs, and paint a better picture of ratepayers’ energy burdens for them so they can better prepare as prices rise.

The Energy Justice Clinic also helped the town research the obstacles and possibilities for building out community power, a system in which a town or city produces the energy that it uses.

Lebanon is at work on community power too, and is a bit further along in the process.

The students want to use the city as a model for their Hanover.

“We’re also trying to help them really consider the texture of different inequity issues related to energy and housing, because those two things are interrelated,” said Kelly, a post-doctorate student in geography.

Sustainable Hanover hopes the Energy Justice Clinic can work with landlords in town to enhance the efficiency of the rental stock that students and staff members seek out.

“They bring an expertise in energy equity and justice that we don’t have,” said Sustainable Hanover committee member Judith Colla. “We have it as a value, but we don’t always know how to implement it. They’re studying this in their classes, informing us, and also really acting on this stuff.”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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