Small Town Makes Big Strides in Energy Efficiency

Northampton Makes Sustainability a High Priority

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Chris Mason is energy and sustainability officer for the town of Northampton, Mass.

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Posted: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 1:42 pm

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. -- When you’re trying to advance sustainability in a small town, it’s important to focus on priorities, pick your battles carefully, and don’t show up in the council chambers looking for a hand-out.

Chris Mason, energy and sustainability officer for the small town of Northampton, population 28,500, said prioritization is a key component of a sustainability strategy in a smaller community where manpower and financial resources are often in short supply.

Mason shared his perspective at the Building Energy 13 conference hosted by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) recently in Boston.

“When I was hired by Northampton, my job description was to improve efficiency, get renewable energy, guard against climate change, and guard against energy-supply disruptions or depletions in all community sectors… and it was a part-time job,” Mason said. “So, my first question was, ‘Can you prioritize?’”

“I knew I had to work on city facilities first, to lead by example. The city had to be seen doing the right thing before it could ask private residents and businesses to join in,” he said. The first step was to create a database for tracking energy use and savings through efficiency and cost-effective renewable energy projects.

“We spent over $6.5 million on efficiency improvements and, as of fiscal year 12 our buildings had dropped their energy use by 27 percent over fiscal year 09,” he said. All but a few city buildings were converted from heating oil to high-efficiency gas or to air-source heat pumps; some parking lot lights were converted to LED lamps; and the city installed solar-powered parking meters.

Mason’s office also facilitated the installation of 129 kilowatts of solar power at two local schools and an adult learning center.

“I install renewable energy when it makes economic sense, and that largely means when I have a grant,” Mason said. In the case of the Smith Vo-Ag-Tech High School in Northampton, half the money for its 106-KW solar array came from a low-interest Clean Renewable Energy Bond (CREB) and the other half came from a Massachusetts Green Communities grant. The bond is paid off with the off-set cost of electricity.

In Massachusetts, qualified rate payers also receive Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), which total between $30,000 and $70,000 per year for the Smith school project. That money is used to feed a revolving energy and sustainability fund controlled by the mayor's office and the Northampton Energy and Sustainability Commission to drive more energy efficiency projects in Northampton.

Acquiring these funding sources is a big part of the job, Mason said.

“You need to bring your own resources to the table. I didn’t expect to go to the city council and have them give me a lot of funding to do stuff. So, I’m always looking for resources and I’m always looking for community support.”

Mason said Northampton has had an energy commission and designated energy officers “on and off” since the mid-1980s. The current commission includes four city department heads, two city councilors, a representative of a local school, four members of the public and several non-voting associates, including Mason.

Mason’s job is funded by a state program that provides local communities with a certain amount of money for every resident or business that selects the renewable energy option on their electric bill.

“Northampton raised over $260,000 this way, over three years,” Mason said. “We raised twice as much as any other community in Massachusetts, including Boston and Worcester. So, that gives you a sense of who lives in Northampton. They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is.”

Northampton’s downtown trash is collected by haulers on bicycles, and the city’s 121-acre community farm is the largest in the state, Mason said. Its landfill has an 800 kilowatt gas-to-energy plant, and 70 percent of city residents live within a half mile of a multi-use trail.

The city has won a number of state awards and designations for its sustainability efforts. “We’re doing a lot, but there’s a lot more to be done,” Mason said.

After making city facilities energy efficient, Mason’s next priority is to reduce barriers for private property owners by doing what he can to change city policy and build partnerships to make energy efficiency and renewable energy easy and affordable. A big part of that job is opening the lines of communication between citizens, local utilities and city staff to make sure the community knows what incentives are available, who qualifies and how to apply.

“One local business owner said, ‘Sure there’s money out there, but what’s the pain factor?’ And what he meant by that is how much time, how much effort, how many phone calls do I have to make in order to get this energy efficiency in? …We want to reduce that time and effort for businesses,” Mason said.

So, a partnership was established between the local utility company and a nonprofit group to act as an “energy concierge” service helping businesses select and apply for the appropriate rebates and other incentives. The city’s role in the project is to act as a public relations component, encouraging participation and promoting the advantages of the program.

City code now requires new buildings to exceed Energy Star ratings for efficiency; the city provides “as-of-right” and expedited permitting for photovoltaic generation projects greater than 200 KW; it enacted streamlined permitting and site-plan review of residential level ground-mount PV; it developed a fuel-efficient vehicle purchasing policy; and it now requires new municipal buildings to meet LEED criteria, specifically with regard to clean energy.

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