March 20, 2018 – The AMC Highland Center sits in the heart of Crawford Notch, the middle of the three glacially gouged gateways cutting through White Mountain National Forest and into New Hampshire’s North Country. From the Highland Center, you can hike 1.6 miles up Mt. Willard and gaze out through the Notch. The summit provides a view of the enormous basin between the giants of Mt. Willey and Mt. Jackson, through which the Cog Railway and Saco River run south towards the jagged White Mountain horizon.
At the base of these snow-covered peaks, gathered inside AMC’s Brad and Barbara Washburn Conference Room, are fifty individuals with a shared sense of purpose and community. They began trickling in as early as 7:00am and each carries a similar appreciation for the importance of the daylong convening. While some traveled from homes looking north to the mountains, the day’s focus is on the south-facing communities of New Hampshire’s North Country.
The group is comprised of energy sector professionals and volunteers from all corners of society. Utility managers, town officials, state and federal employees, and efficiency contractors alike mingle over coffee and snacks. They have been called together by the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund, a philanthropic pillar of Coös County, to create a plan that will lessen the energy burdens of their communities and revitalize their local economies.
The Tillotson Fund has contracted the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) to facilitate a long-term approach to North Country energy challenges; today’s meeting is a pivotal launch point in a much larger endeavor. The meeting’s focus is on building a collective understanding of the gaps and opportunities to improving regional energy efficiency and deploying local energy solutions. The long-term goals are ambitions: (1) reduce energy burdens; (2) create local jobs; and (3) increase regional wealth. Today’s meeting was preceded by months of preparation and will require long-term follow through to build up the local energy capacity of the North Country.
Throughout the day’s presentations and working sessions, John Ahern, a Lancaster native in his mid-twenties, stands out among the many participants actively building a local energy economy. After graduating from UNH with a degree in Environmental and Resource Economics, John returned to Lancaster where he now runs the Lancaster Community Energy Program. The project has a goal to orchestrate 100 home energy audits in the city and deploy half as many wood pellet heating systems to residents and businesses.
“The demographic here is… tough. It’s tough to get ‘em to change their ways,” John says with a grin, which gets a laugh from the room. John’s job is to spread the benefits energy efficiency and wood pellet heating to the homes that have a hard time staying warm through the winters. Residents of Coös County spend on average 14.3% of their income on energy, one and a half times as much as the New Hampshire average.
Liz Nickson of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Kate Peters of NHSaves have also dedicated their days to the meeting. PUC and NHSaves programs, along with those offered by NH Housing, Community Action Programs, the Community Development Finance Authority, and USDA (all of which are in attendance), are important factors facilitating the growth of the local energy economy in Coös and throughout the state. Each of these institutions has come to share their resources with John and other local energy organizers, but also to listen and to learn how they can better meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Maura Adams is another notable attendee deploying real energy solutions on the ground. Maura, Program Director at the Northern Forest Center, orchestrated the Berlin Model Neighborhood Initiative, another effort designed to heat North Country homes while building up the local economy.
“As a result of the program, Berlin now has the highest concentration of wood pellet boiler users in the country,” Maura shares proudly. The program helped 40 homeowners switch to locally-sourced wood pellet heat, as well as the Berlin Housing Authority’s Welch Apartment Building, St. Kieran Center for the Arts, Notre Dame Apartments, and other community establishments.
“People don’t have to feel guilty about cranking the heat anymore. They are proud to be supporting local workers in the forest industry,” comments David Van Houten, a Bethlehem resident and longtime energy champion of the Ammonoosuc Regional Energy Team.
As the day unfolds we hear many stories of progress, but the challenges faced by these communities also become painfully apparent. Small towns like Bethlehem do not have the capacity for municipal staff that can organize and manage energy projects to benefit of their communities. While there is limited funding available to weatherize low income homes, families seeking to access those services must get on the end of an eight-year wait list.
Coös, tucked away beyond the grandest mountains the northeast has to offer, can often feel far removed from the more southern regions of the Granite State. But there is an invisible thread that connects John in Lancaster, to Liz at the PUC and Kate at Eversource, to Maura in Berlin and Van Houten in Bethleham, and to everyone else working on energy at the state or local level in New Hampshire. These individuals, along with the other volunteers, business owners, and government employees participating in the AMC meeting, are part of a larger New Hampshire community that grows stronger by the day. Even you reading this now is a member of the same community, connected to this group by the same inexplicable drive to take on the daunting challenges of poverty and climate change. Today's North County gathering represents a rare instance of that community being pulled together under one roof and given the opportunity to look at itself and be inspired to continue its good work.