NEW BEDFORD – SouthCoast towns are shying away from applying to the state’s “Green Communities” grant program because of hurdles some officials say are too great.
Green Communities is a state program that makes grants available to towns that meet five requirements toward being more sustainable.
The requirements include taking measures like creating bylaws and an expedited permitting process for siting alternative energy like wind turbines or solar farms; purchasing only fuel efficient vehicles; setting requirements to minimize energy costs for new construction projects; and developing a plan to reduce the town’s energy use by 20 percent within five years.
To date, the state has distributed more than $20 million in grants to the 103 green communities in the state.
But despite many SouthCoast towns using sustainable energy to power municipal buildings (including Dartmouth and Fairhaven), only Lakeville has been designated a “Green Community.”
Indeed, the whole southern region of the state, including Cape Cod and the Islands, lags behind the rest of the state, with only 10 green communities total.
So what’s keeping SouthCoast from going green?
David Wojnar, chairman of Acushnet selectmen and a member of the town’s Alternative Energy Committee, said the state’s requirements are too burdensome for the town.
Creating building codes requiring that new construction projects be more energy efficient “isn’t something we can impose on our residents during this tough economic time,” Wojnar said.
“Requiring better insulation and energy-efficient products adds extra costs for people building new homes,” he said. “In the long run we know it’s the right thing to do, but most people can’t afford the long run right now.”
He said that Acushnet is a sustainable community, it’s just not officially green.
“We’re doing things that are green, but not in the technical sense of being a green community,” he said, siting as an example the selectmen’s recent vote to consider installing solar panels on municipal property.
Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Mark Sylvia, who is a resident of Fairhaven, said the department has been making efforts to reach out to communities to help them with all five requirements, including the new construction codes.
Sylvia said that when the program began in 2009, the state subsidized environmental consultants to help advise municipalities on how to meet the criteria. In addition, each region of the state has a green community coordinator to encourage cities and towns to apply for the program.
Sylvia said his department is currently brainstorming ways to reach out to specifically to SouthCoast.
“When you look at the map, of the four regions of the state, the region with the least number of green spots on it is in the Southeast,” he said. “It’s very important to me professionally and as a resident of that region that we get those numbers up.”
Rita Garbitt, town administrator in Lakeville, said it took the town two years to obtain a green community designation.
The town decided to make the effort in part because it’s aged town office building has energy efficient windows that have to be custom made and are costly to replace.
“They’ve been on our priority list to get done for years, but we haven’t had the funds,” she said. “With the green communities grant we can replace them as part of reducing our energy cost.”
But the process wasn’t easy and Garbittt said she understands why some towns wouldn’t be able to obtain the designation, saying it took Lakeville “a long time” to recruit volunteers to be on the advisory committee for the effort.
She said creating an energy reduction plan with evidence of how the reductions could be achieved was the most difficult aspect of the process.
“You have to input all your utility usage into this model and thank goodness we found some people who knew enough about energy to get it done,” she said. “But it’s not something everyone can do.”
Garbitt said the members of Lakeville’s advisory committee changed multiple times, making her think the already short-staffed town wouldn’t be able to get the designation.
“Now we have it, and I’m happy,” she said. “But it’s not easy to do.”
With 2.8 megawatts of power produced at three industrial solar farms, Dartmouth ranks fifth in Massachusetts for overall solar capacity.
But Executive Administrator David Cressman said he didn’t have enough confidence in the state to pursue becoming a green community.
Speaking about a proposed state law that he said could cost the town up to $600,000 a year in revenue from solar farms, Cressman said, “They are changing the game in terms of solar capacity, so how am I supposed to react?
“Yes, they say the program would give us grants, but where’s the guarantee that the funds are going to be available by the time we jump through all the hoops,” he said. “We’re being sustainable in the broad sense of the word, but the state just doesn’t define us that way.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding