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Making A Powerful Pledge

More Towns Joining Clean Energy Program

May 4, 2007

Bloomfield and Branford. Canton and Cromwell. Hartford and Harwinton. West Hartford and Westport.

One by one, cities and towns across Connecticut are buying into an energy program that its promoters promise will improve public health, free the nation from its addiction to foreign oil and combat global warming all at the same time.

The grand claims are matched by a born-again zeal. Local governments are asked to "take the pledge" or "make the commitment" to the program. It even uses its own numerology.

The key numbers are "20 percent by 2010." They give the program its name and its goal. By joining, cities and towns dedicate themselves to getting 20 percent of the electricity used in their public buildings from clean power sources by 2010. Wind, water, landfill gas: yes; coal and oil: no.

The next number is 100. If that many households agree to pay a clean energy premium on their monthly electric bills, a town that takes the 2010 pledge wins designation as a clean energy community. It's a kind of merit badge bestowed by the state, and comes with a prize of a solar energy unit worth $10,000.

As of last month, 45 towns have joined the SmartPower 20% by 2010 Clean Energy Campaign, and 20 of those have qualified as clean energy communities. In some, new energy task forces have become permanent parts of local government, like inland wetlands commissions or zoning boards.

Almost every week now a town council or board of selectmen hears the clean energy pitch from citizen activists, or from agents of the nonprofit groups nurturing the grass-roots movement.

The Windsor Town Council in early April was confronted by two fourth-graders who made it their mission to get the town to join.

Alex Simon and Tom McAuliffe said they were inspired by "An Inconvenient Truth," the Al Gore global warming documentary, and decided to research green power for a school project.

Tom, in a navy blazer, and Alex, the son of a councilman, read from index cards as they gave a PowerPoint presentation to the council.

Joining 20-10 "would provide Windsor kids with a safer, healthier future," Alex told the council.

In Bloomfield, Marianne Horn, an attorney at the state Department of Public Health, said residents pushed the council to become a green community.

"I really think that's the way this change is going to happen and it seems to be mushrooming. I think people are afraid and they're concerned," Horn said. "One of the things that I think helps people feel empowered is to do something concrete like sign up for the clean energy option on their energy bills."

West Hartford is a leader among towns already working toward the 20-10 goal. It has three solar panels on the roof of town hall and four more on the way. West Hartford has more residents, 700-plus, paying for the household clean energy option than any other town in the state.

The town itself is buying about 1,500 megawatt hours of electricity that can be credited to clean sources, putting it halfway toward its 20 percent goal and way ahead of most other towns. Taking the pledge for clean energy is one thing. Budgeting for it is another.

In early 2005, when West Hartford passed its 20-10 resolution and created an energy task force, people were most worried about gasoline and heating oil prices, said Mayor Scott Slifka. But that was before a surge in electricity prices, Hurricane Katrina and "An Inconvenient Truth."

"We signed up for the program thinking it was the right thing. I know we didn't think it was going to become as big a deal as it has," Slifka said.

"Ten years ago, people went `Al Gore is a tree hugger.' Now people go, `Oh, I get it,'" Slifka said. "I think we're very much a model both for what the government is doing, but very much for what the residents are doing on their own."

Meanwhile, Hartford may soon leap past West Hartford. On April 19, in honor of Earth Day, the city said it would reach its 20 percent goal by the end of this year.

Explaining Clean Energy

If West Hartford and Hartford have become models for clean energy, that is exactly what the creators of 20-10 had in mind.

"Cities and towns can be clean energy salesmen. Mayors can be salesmen," said Brian Keane, founding president of SmartPower, the nonprofit marketing organization promoting the program. Its ad slogan - "Clean Power. It's real. It's here. It's working." - is often heard on public radio.

The slogan addresses what research showed to be the reasons for consumers' ambivalence about clean energy, Keane said.

"Why do 90 percent say they'll buy clean energy and nobody does?" he said.

The top reason is, "They simply don't think it works," Keane said. They suspect the sun won't shine enough or the wind blow enough to make clean energy reliable.

Other barriers are not knowing where clean energy comes from, and thinking it requires a crimped lifestyle, not just paying a penny or so more per kilowatt hour.

In fact, all of Connecticut's electricity flows from the same regional grid, fed mostly by traditional power plants. The renewable energy that towns or residents pay for is real nonetheless.

Community Energy, one of the state's two main suppliers, either jointly owns or is developing wind farms from New Jersey to the Rocky Mountains. But it's also a broker. Sterling Planet, the other main supplier, functions solely as a broker, buying from 400 different generators.

Each year, Sterling Planet sends its customers a list of their sources of energy. They have included a small hydropower company in eastern Connecticut and wind farms as close as New York.

The actual transaction between customer, supplier and generator usually involves certificates that guarantee that the amount of electricity stated on the certificate is being generated by clean sources.

"What comes out of the plug is what you had before but with a little bit more wind or solar and less coal and nukes and oil," Keane said.

"Selling clean energy is a lot like selling vacuum cleaners was 45 years ago. You have to go door to door" to convince people that they should buy one. "They need to see it working."

Windsor's town council took a year to decide to join, said Keri Enright, a program coordinator for SmartPower.

Meanwhile, at a South Windsor council meeting last month, a local leader of the movement orchestrated a show of force for clean energy. When Ellen Castaldini asked everyone in favor of a clean energy resolution to stand, 30 people rose, each wearing a green sticker that proclaimed "20% by 2010."

But the council voted against the program, instead rewriting the resolution to show the town's commitment to conservation efforts with no mention of the relevant numbers, 20 or 2010.

"It's unfortunate that we had to go through all this and it didn't turn out the way we had hoped," said Colin Bennett, an organizer with Clean Water Action, who had worked with the South Windsor residents.

Meanwhile, in Manchester, Janet Heller and Gene and Diane DeJoannis have lobbied for months to persuade the town to join the 20-10 program. The board of directors finally passed the resolution April 17. What's more, the town will receive two free solar panels because more than 200 residents already have clean energy in their homes.

Gaining Momentum

The solar panels towns receive through the 20-10 program are intended as visible proof that clean energy works. The towns' pledges and purchases are another kind of proof. When SmartPower was created in 2002, the organizations funding it intended Connecticut to be a clean energy showcase for "regular people," Keane said.

Those groups include the state's own Clean Energy Fund, the John Merck Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, among others. So far the 20-10 program has been exported to Pennsylvania, where 18 towns have signed on.

In Connecticut, the program started slowly with New Haven, the first to take the pledge in February 2004. Portland followed that November. Andy Bauer, a middle school teacher, lobbied for months for a 20-10 resolution.

"My easiest sell was to the finance director," he said. "These guys crunch numbers all day long. They are the ones who understand the concept of an investment."

Bauer said Portland now is paying about $3,000 extra a year to make 5 percent of its electricity clean. In 2010, the bill should be about $7,800. (All towns are helped toward their goal by the statewide standard that mandates that 7 percent of Connecticut electricity come from renewable sources by 2010.)

Bauer heads Portland's energy task force. Recently the task force helped choose Valley View School as a site for free solar panels, and to allay fears the panels would cause the roof to leak.

The pace of towns taking the clean energy pledge sped up as awareness of the program grew, helped by groups allied with SmartPower like Clean Water Action and the Interreligious Eco-justice Network.

The program crossed a significant threshold in March when Cromwell, Newington and Stratford passed resolutions, and the number of towns reached 43. It meant one-quarter of the state's 169 towns had signed up. If they fulfill their pledge, together they will be buying 100,000 megawatt hours of clean energy by 2010.

At the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, Bob Wall said towns must be encouraged to follow leaders like West Hartford in actually making purchases.

The biggest laggard is the state itself, which also is committed to the 20 percent by 2010 goal.

Wall said the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Public Utility Control each are 100 percent clean. But state government overall is only about 2 percent above the mandatory renewable energy standard.

"One of my missions is to help the state move along," Wall said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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