Nine months ago, area residents, business owners, students and volunteers packed into a room at Keene City Hall to urge councilors to take climate change seriously.
They delivered impassioned speeches about the need to shift away from fossil fuels, and they made emotional appeals while leaning on statistics about climate change across the planet.
And they made their point. By a 14-1 vote in January, the City Council adopted a nonbinding resolution that set high aspirations — for everyone in Keene to switch all electricity use to renewable sources by 2030 and to convert all heating and transportation by 2050.
Since then, a committee of local residents and leaders has been hard at work to help make this happen.
Keene’s energy and climate committee — the panel of mayor-appointed volunteers that proposed the energy resolution — has until December of next year to present a plan to bring it to fruition.
“They’ve been very busy on different ways to engage the community … because these goals are not just for the city [government], they’re for everyone in the city,” said Mari Brunner, a city planner who serves as the committee’s staff liaison.
A sense of urgency
Last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued what a New York Times article described as a “landmark report” painting “a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought ...”
“The report,” the article continues, “... describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.”
Supporters of Keene’s energy resolution insisted the situation is critical, and that the city must do its part.
One way to mitigate the effects of climate change, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, is by switching from fossil fuels to natural, renewable sources.
These sources, such as solar energy and wind, don’t add carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Since the City Council approved Keene’s resolution, the makeup of the energy and climate committee has expanded from seven members to 11, and it has opened up to non-residents with the aim of involving community leaders who might live elsewhere.
The council has one seat on the panel, occupied by Ward 3 Councilor Terry M. Clark.
“Now we have really good representation from the county and [Keene State] College, which are two big sectors,” he said of the expanded membership.
A longtime advocate for green energy, Clark explained that the idea is to get people on the committee from a cross-section of industries. There are now representatives from the real estate sector and N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, and Clark said committee members are trying hard to also get someone from Cheshire Medical Center on board.
The committee meets monthly and works closely with Brunner, and city staff is hosting focus group sessions in the community to get direct feedback. Brunner said staff recently held the first of four of these sessions with landlords to learn more about how the city can help them reach the new energy goals and what they see as hurdles.
The other three will be for businesses, residents and institutions, the latter of which will encompass large nonprofit energy users such as Keene State and the hospital.
Separately, the committee is also planning “meetings in a box,” which will be facilitated by volunteers who will receive training and a kit with an agenda and other materials. These meetings have the advantage of being less restrictive in terms of location and format, according to Brunner.
“For example, it could be run at a park, if it’s nice out, or at the library,” she said.
While the committee will get indirect feedback from these “meetings in a box,” the hope is that these sessions might be more accessible to residents who either can’t make it to the committee’s other events or who might feel intimidated by the formal setting.
Larger workshops are also planned, including one in late October, though the details are still being determined.
Filtrine Manufacturing Co. President Peter Hansel is the committee’s vice chairman and agreed the focus has been on community engagement.
In a June committee meeting, Hansel offered information from Eversource that “fully two-thirds of Keene’s energy use comes from 2,000 commercial/industrial customers,” according to meeting minutes.
Getting widespread feedback is critical, he said, while adding that “we get the best bang for our buck, I guess, from focusing on the biggest energy users.”
As a business owner himself, Hansel said any outreach will have to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to put solar panels on their roof, nor is it practical for every building. Part of the committee’s job, he said, is to raise awareness of alternative ways to take part in the process, such as negotiating with power suppliers to opt for renewable energy. There are also lesser-known incentives for green energy projects, he added.
Making the plan palatable for the public at large will also be incorporated into the committee’s messaging.
Hansel noted that the energy goals aren’t mandatory, so they will require buy-in from the community to work. A piece of that puzzle comes from sharing “success stories” from Keene residents and business owners who are already on their way to 100 percent renewables, through solar panels, LED lighting and other energy efficiencies that can be replicated.
More than that, he said, the people behind these stories can explain to their neighbors why they found these projects viable and worth the time and money, and that could get others on board.
Some extra muscle
Along with community engagement, though, Brunner pointed out that professional assistance is key.
In June, the City Council gave City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon the go-ahead to negotiate and execute a contract for up to $45,000 for “energy planning consulting services,” the bulk of which came from unused personnel funds.
The consultant is vital to the plan’s success, Brunner said. The city is hiring someone from the Cadmus Group in Massachusetts, a company she said has experience in energy efficiency consulting and “expertise we don’t have on staff right now.”
That position is still in the negotiation phase, according to Brunner, but she said she expects someone to be hired in September. At that point, the committee can combine ongoing feedback from the community with input from the consultant to brainstorm ideas and start drafting the plan for achieving the new energy goals.
Councilor Clark said he’s happy with the committee’s progress so far. Beyond constituent service, he cited climate change as the most important issue to address as a public official.
“The people on this committee are incredibly excited and dedicated to this cause,” he said.
When the committee originally submitted the resolution to the council, the proposed deadline for the implementation plan was next April, but councilors pushed that to December. Clark, who disagreed, said he still thinks the committee could’ve handled the shorter timeline.
“But we’re gonna be ready,” he said. “I think we’re gonna be ready early.”