Amid questions about whether certain programs in Keene’s proposed energy plan would be mandatory, the plan’s language will be adjusted to make clear that the programs are voluntary — or at least they’ll start out that way.
Keene’s sweeping proposal to help the city reach its goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy for electricity by 2030 and heating and transportation energy by 2050 hit a snag last month, when the City Council decided to send the plan back to its Planning, Licenses and Development Committee rather than adopt it.
Though councilors expressed support for the plan, there were some concerns about the benchmarking program and the home-energy labeling program the plan calls for — including the financial impact they would have on home and business owners.
The purpose of both programs is to provide transparency about energy usage for prospective buyers and renters.
The benchmarking program is designed for commercial and large residential buildings and would involve reporting actual energy usage to the city. The home-energy labeling program is aimed at single-family homes and multi-family homes with four or fewer units and would ask property owners to provide information about their building to give potential buyers or renters an idea of what they could expect to pay for utilities.
The council sent the plan back to committee for further discussion on Dec. 17. During the PLD committee’s meeting on Jan. 13, City Planner Mari Brunner said the original intent of the plan was to start off with voluntary programs and later assess whether they should become mandatory. But in several parts of the plan, the benchmarking and labeling programs were described as “required.”
“There’s a total of six pages where I think the wording could be modified to make it really clear that the city is really only recommending a voluntary program to start,” Brunner said during the committee meeting. “And then if it’s successful, and if there’s interest, we could go on to a mandatory program.”
The committee voted unanimously to send the plan back to the full council, subject to the wording changes described by Brunner. Originally, Councilor Mitch Greenwald had moved to put the plan on “more time” to allow for the change to be made, but Councilor Gladys Johnsen moved to amend the motion to move it forward immediately, which passed 3-2.
Though the emphasis on the programs being voluntary satisfied many of his concerns, Greenwald said he’s still worried about the programs becoming mandatory in the future.
Greenwald, who is a real estate agent, noted that there’s not a known set of standards for how real estate agents are supposed to report this information. He also asked about the criteria for assigning a score under the home-energy labeling program, who would set those ratings, how inspections would get done and how the city would put the programs into action.
“To implement this, it’s going to require a whole new city department,” he said. “Our code enforcement can barely deal with inspection of rental properties and single-family houses. Fire department has been trying for years to get in and out of all the rental properties, and it is not happening. So to try to implement this program, and to verify it, I think is going to be impossible, and certainly is going to be very costly.”
Other councilors expressed concerns as well, with committee Chairwoman Kate Bosley saying she was hesitant with anything that would impose a burden on property owners. Councilor Philip Jones said he’d like to see more of an implementation plan.
Johnsen was the most vocal in support of moving it ahead quickly. She urged the committee to remember the global climate crisis and said it’s time to start moving forward with efforts to mitigate its effects.
“I see a document like this as being a living document,” she said. “Questions, when they come up, they get answered.”
Brunner noted that other communities that have adopted these programs — including Montpelier, Vt. — had similar concerns about not burdening property owners and city staff. She said they use an affordable program to keep track of energy-efficiency information, and while it might not always be completely accurate, she said it’s a good way to compare homes on a consistent basis.
She also said city staff wouldn’t be responsible for finding that information, which would include things like age of the building, number of rooms and type of heating system. She said this is something homeowners would report on their own.
Members of the public also participated in Wednesday night’s discussion, which was held via Zoom. Some said they supported the program, especially in a voluntary form, as a way of encouraging energy efficiency and helping track the city’s progress. Toby Tousley, owner of Tousley Property Management, argued that making programs like these mandatory would drive up the cost of housing in a city with an affordable-housing shortage.
Speaking to the home-energy labeling program, Ann Shedd, a member of the city’s Energy and Climate Committee, which prepared the plan, said the energy burden is disproportionately high for people of low income, and that it’s just as important for them to be able to afford utility costs as it is to afford a home. She also cited a study she said found that houses whose owners disclosed information about their energy usage sold more quickly and at a higher price than those whose owners didn’t.
Councilor Terry Clark, who is not a member of the PLD committee, noted that the plan being proposed is only a roadmap, and that putting any part of it into play would require additional council action in the future.
“We could pass this ordinance, and no one would be required to do anything,” he said. “Before we implement the parts of this plan, we’re going to have to get really into the weeds. We’re going to have to create ordinances, we’re going to have to create partnerships and the like. So all of the things that are in here are just aspirations.”