Going green starts at the grass roots.
That was a major theme at a forum on clean energy that drew municipal leaders from across Massachusetts to the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston on Friday.
State Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Mark Sylvia credited town and city initiatives – from installing solar panels on schools to using LED bulbs in street lights – as big parts of the state’s broader push to make buildings more energy efficient and shift to cleaner sources of power.
“I can’t emphasize enough it’s been driven in large part by you at the local level,” he said.
Municipal officials said these changes often were possible because residents organized and pressed for them and local leaders had political will to carry them out.
“Communities often say we can’t do this because we don’t have the expertise, but in fact, the expertise is out there and the tools available,” said Steve Weisman, vice president of Peregrine Energy Group, who moderated a panel discussion on municipal energy projects. “The only thing that is missing is leadership and a champion.”
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which has helped local governments tackle energy efficiency and clean power projects, hosted the forum.
Sylvia said until a few years ago, most towns had no plans to manage their energy needs and use. Since 2010, 110 towns and cities, nearly a third of the 351 communities in the state, have made plans to cut power use and taken other steps to get certified in the state’s Green Communities grant program, he said.
These grants have funded an array of renewable power and energy efficiency projects. For example, 348 towns and cities have installed solar panels on municipal buildings, schools or undevelopable land, according to Sylvia.
This helped the state surpass its goal to see 250 megawatts of solar systems installed by 2017, four years early, he said. He also credited municipal programs in part for the state’s top ranking in the United States from the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy for its efforts to rein in wasted energy.
“We’re not resting on our laurels,” Sylvia said. “There has been a lot of great progress, but there’s still more for us to do.”
That includes reaching the state’s new “aggressive but achievable” solar goal – 1,600 megawatts by 2020, he said.
In response to questions from local officials, Sylvia promised more Green Communities grants will be available. He also acknowledged growing local opposition to wind projects, with neighbors sometimes complaining about noise and possible health problems.
“It’s not the case that the commonwealth is walking away from community wind, but I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t say we will learn from the examples” of problems and try to improve such projects going forward, Sylvia said.
In a panel discussion, town officials often credited citizens for getting the ball rolling and in some cases said it has become important to have a staffer to manage energy programs.
Melrose Energy Efficiency Manager Martha Grover said she came to her grant-funded job in 2011 with a background in project management, not energy.
“They took a gamble on me, I think, but I had some experience in the city making projects happen, bringing the right people together to make them happen, and I figured I could learn the content as I went along,” she said.
Melrose has now streamlined management of city and school buildings and power bills are down, Grover said. “I think the key to success is these things show results,” she said.
Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said among other things, his town has installed energy-efficient boilers, uses Toyota Priuses for some town vehicles and installed a small solar system on a middle school in its efforts to lower power bills.
“It’s a real win-win financially, as well as in reducing our town’s energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
The town also has hired a part-time energy manager, splitting her salary with nearby Bedford.
Medway Planning and Economic Development Coordinator Susan Affleck-Childs said while grass-roots support is important, it is critical that her boss, Town Administrator Suzanne Kennedy, also has taken energy issues seriously.
“You can have, how do I say it, the folks in the trenches interested and caring about it, but you need, as I call it, people higher up the food chain that this resonates and speaks to,” Affleck-Childs said.