An energized discussion

Dozens of community leaders and Keene residents participated in a Zoom forum Tuesday night to discuss the city’s ambitious energy plan. Keene aims to draw all its electric energy from renewable sources by 2030 and all of its thermal and transportation energy from these sources by 2050.

More than 50 Keene leaders and residents joined virtually Tuesday night to weigh in on the city’s sweeping energy plan, which is expected to be presented to the City Council for a final vote by the end of the year.

The forum’s purpose was to get feedback on some of the top strategies identified by city staff, with input from several consultants, as the most effective means of meeting Keene’s goals. The first goal is to have all energy consumed in the city coming from renewable sources within the next decade, and the second goal is to have all thermal and transportation energy coming from such sources within the next three decades.

“The goals that were set by [the] City Council back in January 2019 really came from a dedicated group of folks, active citizens, getting involved to improve our community,” said Rhett Lamb, community development director and assistant city manager, during Tuesday’s meeting, which was held via Zoom. “These are really big, aspirational goals, and frankly, they’re a little daunting, to think about what it really will take to get us to these levels. And of course, that’s what this plan’s all about.”

In the forum, city staff explained some of the priorities, including creating a community power program to help achieve Keene’s electricity goal, establishing a benchmarking and energy-labeling program to encourage energy efficiency in heating and cooling and also advocating for the use of electric vehicles as a means of meeting the city’s transportation goal.

Each of the three topics was the subject of break-out discussions that took up about half of the nearly two-hour forum. City staff guided the conversations, and those who attended the forum were able to select which they were most interested in participating in.

According to Lamb, part of the discussion about community power dealt with the fact that it’s still a fairly new concept in New Hampshire. As such, the rules that regulate such programs are likely to change, which he said is something the city ought to keep an eye on.

Community power programs allow municipalities and counties to purchase power on behalf of residents, and then residents can purchase that power. In Keene’s case, the city would become the default energy provider, and those who wished to purchase power from a third party could opt out of the community power program and buy their power on the market.

Some of the common questions that came up Tuesday involved how the city will communicate its plans to residents and business owners and provide information about costs, according to Lamb. He said participants were interested in how a community power program could affect their rates.

He also said there was interest in promoting local production of renewable energy, with one forum participant noting that he purchases wind power from an out-of-state provider.

Some of the topics of discussion relating to electric vehicles involved building out infrastructure to support charging stations. Keene GIS Technician Will Schoefmann said during the meeting that New Hampshire is “behind the ball” when it comes to public charging stations and incentives for electric vehicles compared to other states in New England.

He also said the cost of electric vehicles was a point of concern expressed in that break-out discussion but that things are looking up in that regard.

“Now that the first and second generations of vehicles have gone through leasing ... they’re coming off lease, so maybe the used market will be rather robust,” he said. He also noted that electric vehicles are expected to reach price parity with non-electric “in the next two to five years.”

Jake Pipp, a member of the city’s Energy and Climate Committee, spoke on behalf of the benchmarking and energy-labeling programs.

The energy-labeling program would involve assessing the energy usage in a specific home or business and assigning it a score that would be made available to prospective renters or buyers. A benchmarking program would either encourage or require the tracking of energy and water use, which would be reported to the city.

When it came to the benchmarking program, Pipp said participants in Tuesday’s discussion were more in favor of a voluntary option than a mandatory one, and there was broad support for including incentives for those who are able to meet certain goals.

“Incentives sound very appealing to most people, at least in terms of trying to offset the cost of doing this additional work of keeping these records and reporting them,” Pipp said. “The most popular incentive seems to be a property tax reduction, or something along the lines of being tied to property taxes.”

According to City Planner Mari Brunner, who also serves as a staff liaison to the energy committee, the full plan will be posted to cleanenergykeene.com toward the end of this week or early next week, where residents can review it.

The city will accept written comments on the plan through Nov. 16, at which point any public feedback will be considered and potentially incorporated into the plan before the final version is submitted to the council for a vote.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson