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Brattleboro takes steps toward sustainability

Town creates fund and priorities to reduce municipal use of fossil fuels, agrees to purchase Cow Power from GMP for library and electric vehicle charging stations

BRATTLEBORO—Efficiency, energy generation, energy storage, electrification, and planning are the top priorities the town will use to guide future capital energy projects.

The Selectboard has unanimously approved staff’s recommendations for creating the Fossil Fuel Free Facilities Fund, with a goal of eliminating the municipality’s use of fossil fuels and simultaneously saving money.

Each year, the town will invest $70,000 into the fund, which will be similar to the town’s capital improvement fund but with a specific focus on energy-related projects and technologies.

The extra money is expected to allow the town to use emerging technologies and tolerate longer payback periods, according to Sustainability Coordinator Stephen Dotson.

“This fund will be integrated into the Town’s existing long-term capital project planning process,” Dotson explained in an April 14 memo. “The proposed investments utilizing this fund will then be presented as part of the major capital projects that the Selectboard reviews and authorizes.”

The vote came at the board’s April 20 meeting after a discussion in early March.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said that Brattleboro’s efforts around energy efficiency and reducing its carbon footprint means that it has moved beyond the easy projects or low-hanging fruit.

Instead, to make lasting changes, he said, the town stands on the threshold of big infrastructure projects and using emerging technologies.

A combined approach

At its March 2 meeting, the board considered a recommendation from the Town Energy Committee to purchase 37 percent of the town’s electricity from Green Mountain Power’s Cow Power.

The program pays farmers to install methane digesters, which extract methane from manure and use it as energy.

Cow Power would effectively make the town’s energy consumption 100 percent renewable and carbon neutral, the committee wrote in a memo to the Selectboard.

Board members rejected the proposal, however, because the Cow Power program charges customers a surcharge of 8 to 9 percent, which would place too much of a burden on taxpayers, stressed then-Chair Tim Wessel and then-Vice Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin.

Instead, the board approved a combined approach.

The town would purchase 6 percent of its electricity from Cow Power, enough to be carbon neutral. Also, the town would establish an energy capital improvement fund to pay for future projects.

McLoughlin suggested an annual authorization of $30,000 to the fund. She later accepted a friendly amendment from board member Daniel Quipp to increase the amount to $70,000.

The five priorities

To guide staff and the board as they evaluated energy projects, Dotson listed five top priorities, or domains: efficiency, energy generation, energy storage, electrification/de-carbonization, and finally, planning and project research and development.

He told the board that the five priorities established a “shared expectation of how this money will be spent.”

Under the heading of efficiency work, Dotson listed actions such as weatherization, lighting systems, and higher building performance standards.

The town has undertaken several such projects already: for example, replacing windows at the Gibson-Aiken Center and converting street lamps to LED lighting.

Energy generation could include the installation of rooftop solar, methane digesters, or in-pipe hydropower, where turbines within water pipes generate electricity as the water flows through.

In 2017, the town joined a solar net-metering project with other businesses, school districts, and municipalities. The 5-megawatt solar array atop the former Windham Solid Waste Management District landfill is among the largest in Vermont. Participants in a net-metering project buy discounted net-metering credits that are then applied to their electric bills.

Unfortunately, noted Dotson, a net-metering project might help the town save money on its electric bill through the purchasing of credits. It does not, however, reduce the town’s carbon footprint.

Instead, the town would do more by powering municipal buildings with town-owned, dedicated solar arrays or in-pipe hydropower generation, he said.

According to Dotson, in-pipe hydro places turbines in water pipes to “harness the kinetic energy in the Town’s water system.” He said that Barre and Keene, N.H., have installed this type of energy-generation system.

Energy storage includes batteries and other technologies.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCC), energy storage helps maintain balance in the electric grid by smoothing out jumps in supply and demand. One longstanding example of energy storage is pumping water back behind hydroelectric dams, the UCC noted.

“Because some renewable energy technologies — such as wind and solar — have variable outputs, storage technologies have great potential for smoothing out the electricity supply from these sources and ensuring that the supply of generation matches the demand,” wrote the UCC.

Energy storage is also important the farther away from the main grid a building or a town is located. The more removed a location from the source, the more prone to outages, wrote the UCC.

Dotson provided the purchase of electric vehicles as an example of electrification/de-carbonization.

The first four categories focused mostly on technologies and best practices. Dotson explained that the fifth domain — planning and project research and development — makes the other four possible.

“The Planning Services Department will need additional resources to plan and research the feasibility of various solutions and how they could serve the goals of our capital projects,” he said.

He added that many new technologies are beyond the scope of his expertise and might require hiring people with the corresponding skills and experience.

Dotson told the board that planning for energy projects would be an annual expense. He recommended that 15 percent of the town’s annual $70,000 investment into the fund — $9,000 — go toward planning, leaving approximately $61,000 for capital projects.

He based this recommendation on the percentage that most capital projects in the region put aside for such use.

Elwell pointed to in-pipe hydro as an exciting potential technology that would require planning and likely hiring consultants.

The town’s water supply has a lot of pressure because of how water flows downhill from Pleasant Valley reservoir, he said. Many buildings have regulators to decrease the pressure coming into the building — the same pressure that could be converted to usable power.

Capturing energy from the water system has a lot of potential, but the technology is so new, he added.

“We’re already getting smarter about incorporating the stuff that’s pretty easy to incorporate — that’s just the better way to do business. That’s how we’re designing our projects now,” Elwell said.

Yet the technologies and their costs keep leaping forward, he added.

The committee has “created the opportunity to identify those things that push us out a little farther and a little harder towards doing the right thing and not just the cost-effective thing,” Elwell said.

Board member Ian Goodnow believed the domains reflected the themes and goals of previous discussions around purchasing energy from Cow Power. The priorities will give structure to future discussions and planning without being prescriptive.

“It gives it a path, and I don’t think we need to overthink it,” he said.

Following through on Cow Power

At the March 2 meeting, the board also directed staff to invest 6 percent of the town’s estimated energy use into Cow Power.

According to Dotson, Brattleboro maintains more than 50 accounts with GMP. The company suggested that the town pick a few accounts that “would reliably amount to approximately 6 percent of the town’s total annual electricity usage,” he wrote in an April 14 memo.

Dotson chose the accounts connected to Brooks Memorial Library and the town’s electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

“The Library is compelling because of the opportunity to educate and engage the public around these topics, and it has a very consistent usage profile that doesn’t spike in ways that other accounts sometimes do,” he wrote.

Connecting the EV charging stations to the Cow Power program provides the town with a rare opportunity, Dotson said.

“To make them 100 percent renewably-powered addresses one of the biggest critiques of electric vehicles: that they are only as ‘green’ as the electricity they’re sourced from,” he wrote.

In his memo, Dotson referred to the fossil fuel fund as the Fossil Fuel Free Infrastructure Fund. After some good-humored stumbling over the name by the Selectboard, it seemed that “infrastructure” was dropped in favor of “facilities.”

It can be called “the 5-F fund,” joked McLoughlin.

The fund goes into effect with the new fiscal year on July 1. It will start life with a bang — or what Elwell referred to as a “robust” start, with an initial balance of $144,766.44, the remaining balance from the 2016 energy audit as “seed funding” and this year’s allocation.

Also at the April 20 meeting, the Selectboard approved its annual list of goals organized into a number of categories, including sustainability.

In addition to creating the Fossil Fuel Free Facilities Fund, sustainability goals for the year include:

• reviewing and implementing recommendations to reactivate the Agricultural Land Protection Fund;

• cataloguing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration in pursuit of carbon neutrality;

• strengthening, interconnecting, and increasing public access to the local trail system;

• seizing opportunities to promote multimodal transportation, especially biking, walking, and public transit.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #610 (Wednesday, April 28, 2021). This story appeared on page A3.

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