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Bristol seeks to conserve energy

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August 20, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — Bristol selectmen have created a volunteer energy committee to address concerns about energy efficiency and to cut energy use in the community.

In recent years, some Vermont towns, notably Montpelier, have established separate positions or committees to spotlight energy issues, but Bristol appears to be the first in Addison County.

Bristol’s five-member energy committee will be chaired by energy coordinator John Elder and will work mostly in an advisory role to the selectboard and town administrator on energy efficiency. Elder, a Bristol resident and professor of English and Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, said he has high hopes for the group.

“I hope we can move really fast to get back to the town with some specific proposals,” he said.

The idea for the group originally came from planning commission member Bunny Daubner, who shared it with Selectwoman Carol Wells. Although a separate position to handle energy is relatively new, the responsibility itself is not.

“Almost every town has an energy coordinator, it was just one of those things that the town administrator did,” Wells said.

Wells said Elder has been involved in environmental issues in the area, and this would put his experience to good use for the town.

“He’s been a mover and shaker in the environmental movement,” she said. “It’ll give him the opportunity to put theory to practice.”

Elders’’ experience in the field of energy conservation has grown more out of personal concern than academic study.

“I’m not an engineer or a scientist of any kind, but I have a strong personal interest in energy issues and have tried to educate myself about them,” he said.

Elder said that hard scientific knowledge on energy use and related issues is, for the committee’s purposes, less important than knowing where to look and what questions to ask. “The expertise is all around us, and quite accessible,” he said.

The energy committee members have not been determined, but Elder and selectmen hope it will include Bristol residents who work at energy-related businesses. The board voted at its Aug. 13 meeting that the energy committee include the coordinator and four others, pending the creation of a mission statement for the group, which Elder hoped could be done by their first meeting.

The committee’s main purpose is to act as advisors; any final decisions would be made by the selectboard. Elder said he hoped the committee would be able to bring some useful advice to the selectboard within a month or two. “I want to move on this fast.”

The committee has a head start over similar groups in other towns. Most such groups begin in the community and need to convince the town’s government that the committee would be helpful to the town. Once it has been created, its first job is usually an energy audit of the town’s buildings, to have any kind of definite knowledge about what is needed.

In Bristol, though, the idea originated with a town board, and the nonprofit group Efficiency Vermont completed an energy audit of town property in April.

Efficiency Vermont is a nonprofit organization created by the state in 2000 and funded by a surcharge on electric bills of Vermont residents. It provides energy audits for free on request, which involve taking a close look at how and where a property or organization uses its resources, focused mostly but not entirely on electric power. Audits include steps like reviewing electric bills, testing insulation, considering the types of light bulbs used, and more.

Wells said energy audits deal with issues that are not very technical but they are still a valuable service, especially for a large organization like a business or a town government. “It’s obvious when you point it out, but in the hustle-bustle of every day, you don’t think about it,” she said.

The town of Bristol made several changes to its energy use after receiving the results of its audit. For example, the audit found a significant spike in electricity use in Howden Hall every summer. It turned out to be due to the use of a dehumidifier and an old and inefficient air conditioner, so they replaced the air conditioner with a newer, more fuel-efficient model, and limited the use of the dehumidifier for best effect.

Elder said that the group’s first priority will probably be helping to get energy audits for any individual or business in the town who would like one, rather than just the town government itself. “Our committee would be like a conduit for organizations like Efficiency Vermont,” he said.

In addition to helping Bristol residents deal with organizations like that, Elder said the committee itself would also offer counseling on ways to improve energy efficiency, from basic stuff like insulation and fluorescent lights to, eventually, alternate energy sources.

He also hopes to work with local businesses that deal with energy efficiency issues in a variety of ways, like heating oil companies or people who sell or install insulation. “It’s very important in a small town like this to be sensitive to the needs of business,” Elder said.

Elder was optimistic about the support the group seems to have from the town. “The selectboard has committed themselves to moving toward energy conservation for the town,” he said. “We really come into it with some momentum.”

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