• WisBusiness

Friday, May 28, 2010

GreenBiz: Small communities look to cooperate on energy projects

By Gregg Hoffmann
VIROQUA - Ten small communities in the Driftless Area have come together to form the largest energy independence planning coalition in the state.

With the Crawford County Extension Office serving as a catalyst and liaison, and through the efforts of local energy independence teams, and Jim Olson, Todd Osman and John Fergus, who formed E3 (Energy, Environment & Economic Coalition LLC), the coalition members have received sizeable grants for planning and implementation of energy projects ranging from retrofitting of municipal buildings to solar and other projects.

Participating in the coalition are Crawford County, Fennimore, Ferryville, Gays Mills, LaFarge, Prairie du Chien, Soldiers Grove, Vernon County, Viola and Viroqua.

“It is very difficult for any one community, especially if they are small, to put together a successful grant on its own,” said Olson, who has a background in residential and small commercial energy efficient development.

“There is fragmentation in the granting agencies on the various levels of government and elsewhere. It is very difficult for a farmer or layman, or small municipalities to wade through it and find where they can get help.”

Osman said it also becomes a matter of scale, with larger companies and agencies often working with larger communities and businesses.

“By coming together on a regional level, you gain some scale, and you can share knowledge with people from other communities,” said Osman, a designer and builder of “green” residences with 30 years experience.

The process involved in the effort started with the participating municipalities taking a good hard look at their energy usage. Energy independence teams were formed in each community.

Those teams have been working to “develop a regional plan that increases our energy independence and supports the statewide goal of generating 25 percent of electricity and transportation fuels from renewable resources by 2025.” These goals come from Gov. Jim Doyle’s 25X25 plan.

The goal also is “to use an approach that is specific to our regional resources and needs and that engages local institutions, businesses and citizens.”

Funds for these projects have come primarily though the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EESBG) program. Focus on Energy and other agencies also have been very active with the coalition.

E3 LLC has played the role of consultant and coordinator to the coalition of municipalities. Laura Brown of the Crawford County Extension played a big role in serving as a catalyst and liaison with state agencies and remains an educational resource in the effort.

Business involvement is a key to the long-range effort, Olson and Osman said. Private contractors will bid on the various retrofitting and other projects. Companies also can work with the E3 coalition on developing their own projects.

The local municipalities do make matching pledges when receiving grants. They often pledge to use some of the money saved by becoming more energy efficient to help pay some of the costs of the projects, and at times make “in-kind” matches of labor.

Some of the larger projects to receive grants so far include a $215,200 retrofitting effort in Vernon County buildings and facilities and a $204,400 retrofitting project in the City of Viroqua. In retrofitting, light fixtures and other energy units are updated and replaced with more efficient equipment.

Olson said a $150,000 solar project for heating water at the Vernon Manor, a retirement community, is one of the more visible projects being funded.

The coalition members received the grants earlier this spring, so members have been hustling to get projects in place. Olson said they hope to have all the retrofitting projects wrapped up by the end of this year, although the grant period for them does extend into 2011.

In the future, Olson and Osman hope E3 can apply for PACE (Property Assessment Clean Energy) grants, which would be available to middle income home owners for making their residences more energy efficient. They also want to do more work with companies developing wind, solar and bio-fuels.

“These are naturals for the area we are in,” Osman said, “and we believe we can accomplish more by working on a regional level.”

While the E3 coalition collectively is the largest energy independence planning group in the state by no means is it the only one. As of January of this year, 137 communities around the state had offered support of Doyle’s 25X25 plan.

Twenty-three community groups received pilot grants in 2009. The 2010 Wisconsin Energy Independent Community Partnership Pilots are the counties of Crawford, Eau Claire, Green Lake, Polk, Shawano, Vernon and Waukesha, the cities of Altoona, Eau Claire, Fennimore, Gays Mills, Jefferson, Kaukauna, Monona, Prairie du Chien, Viroqua and Whitewater, the villages of Ferryville, La Farge, Soldiers Grove and Viola and the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Ten of those communities are part of the E3 coalition.

“These grants will help Wisconsin communities across the state seize the opportunity to save money through energy efficiency and grow a strong new part of our economy in clean energy,” Doyle said at the time the grants were announced.

“Through the Recovery Act, our communities will lead as the world moved rapidly in the direction of clean energy and energy efficiency. We spend $16 billion on fossil fuel energy every year in Wisconsin, and all those dollars are lost to our economy. By working toward these ambitious renewable energy goals, we ill create good jobs and continue our state’s clean energy leadership.”

Since the planning grants were announced, Doyle has announced that 82 communities in the state had received more than $9.5 million in ARRA grants for retrofitting and lighting projects.

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He will write the GreenBiz column monthly.


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