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Businesses 'unplug' for energy challenge

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Posted on October 15, 2009 |
By John Flowers



web_vcfatbelladonna.jpg
ALEX BRAUNSTEIN, LEFT, and Ruthie Schwab, program coordinators of the Vermont Community Foundation’s energy conservation challenge “Middlebury Unplugged,” explain details of the challenge with local business owner Rachel Teachout. Teachout’s store, Belladonna, is one of 15 local businesses that will track energy use for the next three months and try to cut consumption. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — A local nonprofit will soon launch a competition in which the winner will be the one to have accomplished the least.

Sounds strange? Yes — until one realizes that the participants’ objective is to consume the least amount of energy possible.

And that’s exactly what 15 local businesses have pledged to do during the next three months as part of “Middlebury Unplugged,” a challenge organized by the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF).

Participating businesses will soon be fitted with energy monitors and data logging software that will track their progress in using the least amount of power. The winner of the competition will be the business with the greatest overall percentage decrease in its energy bill, according to Ruthie Schwab and Alex Braunstein, coordinators of Middlebury Unplugged and members of the VCF’s “Green Team.”

While the competition is primarily focused on electricity, Schwab and Braunstein want participants to also pare back on their transportation and their heating and cooling expenses.

“We went into this … with the understanding that electricity is just a small part of the energy picture in Vermont, and given that, it’s the easiest to monitor,” Schwab said. “But we want there to be a greater understanding among the businesses that are participating and the greater community that there is some low-hanging fruit, in terms of how you can reduce energy use.”

It was early last spring that the VCF applied for a $10,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to initiate Middlebury Unplugged. The VCF won the grant and supplemented it with $1,000 of its own. The bulk of the money will go toward the purchase of the competition software and energy monitors, which businesses have agreed to install near their cashier areas. This will allow the businesses and their customers — beginning Oct. 22 — to witness energy consumption by kilowatt hour and by expense. Participants will be able to see how their power use directly influences readings on the monitors, which the VCF will be able to track through computer software. The competition closes Jan. 22.

Organizers hope this very public and tangible conservation display should set an example for other businesses and residents on how saving energy is not only good for the environment but a true money saver.

Participating businesses include Bejewelled, Forth ’N’ Goal Sports, Blue Moon Clothing & Gifts, Autumn Gold, Middlebury Mountaineer, Sweet Cecily, Vermont Beads and Fibers, Vermont’s Own, Otter Creek Used Books, The Bike Center, Belladonna, Green Mountain Apparel, Junebug, and Main Street Stationery.

“People were generally really excited about the opportunity (to participate in the challenge),” Braunstein said. “What we tried to stress to them also, along with the project, is the visibility of the challenge and how important it is that businesses not only demonstrate to the community that this is something they are thinking about but also that they are making the information available to their customers.”

The winning business’s reward will be twofold, according to organizers: First they will have the knowledge that they have conserved energy and therefore saved in their operating costs; and second they will gain a measure of publicity for their businesses. The winner will be identified in the Addison Independent and the Vermont Business Magazine.

Forth ’N’ Goal owner David Disque didn’t need much coaxing to sign up for Middlebury Unplugged. He fondly recalled the “Alternity Celebration” during the 1980s when Middlebury represented the state for a weeklong energy conservation project. It was an event in which townspeople and businesses pitched in to save electricity, according to Disque.

Firth ’N’ Goal has already done a lot to become energy efficient, Disque noted. All of the spotlighting in the store is of the compact fluorescent variety. The attic space above the store is insulated. Forth ’N’ Goal and the neighboring Rainbow Room have consolidated their respective heating and air conditioning systems.

“We’ve been chipping away at it,” said Disque, who hopes to find even more energy economies through the “unplugged” challenge.

The competition has the potential to help many people and businesses, Disque said.
“I believe the follow-up with other businesses will be just as important … so it can be a broader-based program than dealing with the 15 of us,” Disque said.

That’s just what organizers are shooting for. And when the book closes on Middlebury Unplugged, Braunstein and Schwab plan to make the energy monitors and software available to others.

“I would hope the success of the project can be replicated in other towns,” Braunstein said.
People wanting to learn more about the Middlebury Unplugged challenge can log on to www.vermontcf.org/middunplugged.

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