Editor’s note: This story by Frances Mize was first published in the Valley News on Aug. 7.
THETFORD — In a drive to meet their individual climate and energy goals, seven Upper Valley towns have found power in coordination.
The “energy district,” as it’s called, consists of the towns of Barnard, Bradford, Norwich, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford and Woodstock.
Each town continues to have its own energy committee, but a stronger emphasis on collaboration is intended to make tackling energy challenges — a task that requires specialized knowledge and sustained attention — easier and more effective.
Some towns have already made progress: Thetford installed a mixed-use community solar array. Woodstock pulled together a home weatherization guide. In Sharon, the oil tank at the town library is being replaced with a heat pump.
“We have a tradition of very strong local rather than county government,” Nick Clark, a former Thetford Selectboard member, said of town-centered New England politics. Municipal services sometimes miss out on the manpower of regional coordination, he added.
“If you put a heat pump in a town hall, likely every single town is asking the same questions about the process,” Clark said. “It doesn’t make sense for each town to ask those questions over and over again.”
As towns attempt to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels, they can benefit from sharing the knowledge they’ve gained in areas such as solar panel installation and the purchase of electric vehicles, he said.
Clark is credited with the idea of town energy coordination in the Upper Valley, which he started working towards after he was elected to the Thetford Selectboard in 2019.
In developing the regional approach, Clark drew inspiration from other inter-town initiatives, such as solid waste districts and emergency services. “Why do it seven times when you can do it once?” he said.
When Clark was trying to sell officials in the various towns on the idea of establishing a municipal position focused solely on energy efficiency, he recognized that it would be too expensive for a single town to fund alone.
He began pitching that towns share what would become known as an “inter-regional energy coordinator.”
The energy district’s seven towns are splitting the cost, with help from the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, a Woodstock-based association of 30 municipalities in central Vermont.
Geoff Martin, Hartford’s former energy coordinator, was named to the regional position in 2020. As part of the job, which pays around $60,000 a year, Martin works with the energy committees in the seven member towns. He also tries to find projects that could be more effective if the towns worked together.
In May, Martin met with town energy representatives to draft districtwide guidelines to help home and landowners to lower their carbon emissions. The guidelines are likely to become part of the energy district’s official climate action plan.
“But ‘plan’ is a loose term,” Martin said. “The initial goal was to have a plan that laid out year to year the actions the towns were going to take, but we realized that we don’t know what’s going to happen a year from now.”
Martin has proved crucial to implementing energy-related policies, Clark said.
It’s difficult to expect a town manager or a road foreman to make energy considerations a priority when they have so much else on their plate, he said.
“You think about the staff you have in town hall — they have their jobs and they’re usually doing 120% of those jobs,” Clark added.
Dorian Yates, who represents Strafford in the energy district, said the shared pool of energy information Martin manages helps the town committee gauge what’s possible for them to pursue.
“There are things that don’t make sense for one tiny town to do, but when seven towns are doing it, it’s great,” Yates said, mentioning initiatives like public transportation that rely on coordination.
“Working as a coalition also signals that as a group of towns, this is all pretty important,” she added. One town that might be hesitant about pursuing a particular energy initiative can feel empowered by another town taking the lead, she said.
Without the volunteer-driven energy committees, towns wouldn’t have one group with the exclusive role of advocating for energy-related projects, said Jenevra Wetmore, who represents Woodstock.
“People want to know what they can do about climate change, but I think they’re just beginning to understand the value of really intense, local and regionally focused community work,” Wetmore said, adding that the quickest way to get involved in climate change mitigation efforts is to join an energy committee.
“And if your town doesn’t have a committee yet, form one,” Wetmore said.
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