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Norwich says no to multi-town energy coordinator

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2019 10:19:19 PM
Modified: 12/13/2019 10:19:05 PM

NORWICH — Plans to share an energy coordinator between seven Upper Valley towns could be in jeopardy after Norwich officials this week rejected requests to budget for the new position.

The Selectboard voted, 3-2, on Wednesday against contributing $30,699 for a regional energy coordinator that would be shared with Barnard, Pomfret, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford and Woodstock.

Those other six towns already had pledged to either set aside money in upcoming budgets or request the funds at Town Meeting, according to Thetford Selectboard member Nick Clark, who is organizing the effort to fund the position.

The Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission would be charged with hiring the coordinator and administering the program.

Overall, Clark expects it would cost $116,885 a year, including benefits, to hire a full-time employee to help reduce the communities’ energy bills and explore energy-saving initiatives.

“It’s not the end of the line, as an article can still end up on Town Meeting Day by petition,” Clark said in an email after Wednesday’s meeting. “Looks like I’ll be outside Norwich recycling getting signatures!”

Norwich Selectboard Chairman John Pepper also said on Friday that the five-member board will again take up the issue when it meets next week.

Under a preliminary proposal drafted by Clark, the coordinator would be charged with “increasing renewable energy portfolios, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing energy consumption and overall costs” in member communities.

But Norwich officials worried they could pay too much and get too little from the multi-town collaboration.

“I think we, as a town, are way ahead of many other towns” on energy issues, Selectboard member Claudette Brochu said in a CATV recording of Wednesday’s meeting.

She added the town could get “very little attention” with a coordinator shared between so many communities.

The idea of hiring a regional energy coordinator came out of discussions between Norwich and Thetford’s energy committees, according to Clark.

Both groups are working to advance their communities’ energy goals but have felt they’re not adequately ready to meet upcoming state guidelines, he said.

“There’s a lot of good work happening but volunteers on energy committees can’t do everything on their own,” Clark said in a Wednesday morning phone interview. “There’s a need for someone that specializes in energy that can provide staff support.”

The position is modeled after Hartford’s energy coordinator position, which was created in 2017 to reduce the town’s then-$900,000 energy bill and identify future savings.

Geoff Martin, who took the job that September, saved Hartford $31,285 in 2018, he said. He estimates at least another $46,967 will be saved this year.

“There are also many other things that an Energy Coordinator can do that don’t result in immediate or tangible savings, but that are arguably just as important,” Martin wrote in a recent letter to Clark.

Those include weatherizing and solar initiatives that help residents, rather than the town, save money on their heating bills. Martin said he’s also developing new net-zero building standards for construction in town and preparing to acquire the electric vehicle for Hartford’s municipal fleet.

Martin is charged with advocating for Hartford before state regulators as well.

“Having more Energy Coordinators throughout the state would amplify the messages that energy committees are working to get out into the public, and allow for local needs around energy issues to be better heard at the state level,” Martin said.

Unlike the Hartford position, the regional energy coordinator would be charged with helping school districts and other public groups on energy needs, Clark said.

The coordinator could also be applying energy solutions in several places rather than reinventing programs for every community, he added.

“I think a lot of Selectboards are like, ‘This is welcomed relief,’ ” Clark said ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting in Norwich.

But the proposal faced opposition from Linda Gray, chairwoman of Norwich’s Energy Committee. She said she would rather see a smaller number of towns working to hire someone part time.

“I want you to know that the Energy Committee will not be out there beating the drums saying, ‘Yeah, vote for this,’ ” said Gray, who has long been active on energy issues, told the Selectboard.

Meanwhile, Pepper encouraged his colleagues to at least put the question to voters.

“I think we need to take advantage of the energy and effort that’s been put into this and not think that we can do something like this on our own,” he said.

Clark said on Thursday he will work to petition for a Town Meeting article in Norwich “if that’s what it takes.”

The Norwich Selectboard is also expected to debate the issue again when it meets at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Tracy Hall.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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