Lots of energy around green energy in Lebanon


W ant a glimpse into the future?

Visit Lebanon, New Hampshire, on a perfect fall day.

Solar arrays glint in the sun at the Department of Public Works administration building and garage, the police station, the water treatment plant, the library, the recreation building, the wastewater treatment plant and the recycling center.

At the busy city landfill, construction will soon begin on a system that will turn methane gas produced there into electricity to power municipal buildings.

The city council is poised to adopt a zoning change to require electric-vehicle chargers at new multi-family housing complexes.

Lebanon recently bought one of the nation's first Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup trucks for employees to use, a companion to the Nissan Leaf EV the city has had for a couple years. And at the police station, the infrastructure is in place to charge a future fleet of electric police cruisers.

Even the municipal airport is getting ready for electric planes.

Lebanon's enthusiastic embrace of green-energy technology is no happy accident. It's all by design.

The city adopted "Principles for Sustainability" back in 2009, including environmental responsibility and energy efficiency. The city's Master Plan, adopted in 2012, outlines a vision for Lebanon to be "a regional leader in energy efficiency, innovation, and fiscal responsibility."

Fast-forward a decade, and the city is well on its way.

"There are municipalities around the country that have a reputation for being very forward-thinking on energy: Burlington, Vermont; Austin, Texas; and Boulder, Colorado," says Don Kreis, the state's consumer advocate. "I really am hoping that Lebanon, New Hampshire, takes its place in that pantheon of world-class, energy-savvy municipalities."

Kreis says there's a "two-word explanation for what's going on in the city of Lebanon: Clifton Below."

Below, Lebanon's assistant mayor, is a former 12-year state lawmaker who co-sponsored the first-in-the-nation electric deregulation and restructuring law in 1996. He later served on the Public Utilities Commission for 6 years as well as on regional and national energy committees.

Below, 66, calls it "a lucky coincidence" that his background uniquely positions him to make a difference in the city where he has lived since college.

Kreis, who represents the interest of New Hampshire's electric customers, puts it differently. "Clif is an energy visionary/energy geek," he said.

Lebanon, Below said, "is trying to gear up to transition to a much more electrified future."

Community power

Below chairs the Community Power Coalition of New Hampshire, which pools electricity purchasing power for its members, currently 19 municipalities and Cheshire County.

Last month, Lebanon became the first municipality in New Hampshire to have its community power plan approved by the Public Utilities Commission.

Electricity aggregation, or community power, is a good fit for New Hampshire, Below said.

"The idea is we transform our power supply ... in such a way that we are helping make the long-term decisions about where we're going to get our power, but we're doing so in the context of a competitive market, where we can look for the most cost-competitive solutions based on price," he explained.

Tad Montgomery, hired five years ago to be Lebanon's energy and facilities manager, called the electricity aggregation project "the most exciting and impactful thing the city is doing, by far."

Lebanon will be able to bulk-purchase electricity for residents and businesses, he said. "That enables us to provide discounts to our residents and contract with suppliers of renewable energy," he said. "So it has the potential to rapidly transform the electric grid in New Hampshire."

Shaun Mulholland, Lebanon's city manager, said the landfill gas-to-energy project is expected to produce more than 1 megawatt of power. "Which is more than all of the city buildings need, so we'll be able to sell some of that back, hopefully to the school district, the housing authority or other nonprofits in the city," he said.

One projection showed the city will see $2 million in surplus revenue from the project over a 20-year period, Mulholland said, but that was before electric supply rates recently doubled. "With the new rates, it's going to be considerably more than that," he said.

The project has been 14 years in the making. The latest holdup is a planned upgrade to the national grid that won't be completed until 2024.

"We're a little frustrated. We expected this to be done in the spring of 2023," Mulholland said.

"We're operating with a certain degree of urgency to get this done," he said. "It would be nice if we didn't have to rely on the Russians or the Middle East for energy. We've seen what the results of that are."

Making book on electric

Sherry Boschert describes herself as a "climate migrant."

Boschert grew up in Los Angeles and settled in the San Francisco Bay area. But for several months during western wildfire season, she said, "I couldn't go outside because I couldn't breathe from the fire smoke."

"It was heartbreaking," she said.

"I'm 66 years old," she said. "I don't want to live my last years where I can't breathe two months of the year."

So Boschert moved here 18 months ago and quickly got involved with the Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee (LEAC). "I want to help New Hampshire not let that happen to them," she said. "You guys have a lot of beautiful trees. We don't want those burning too."

Boschert has been active in the electric-car movement going back two decades. She's a co-founder of Plug-In America, a national nonprofit organization that provides resources "for EV drivers and wannabe EV drivers," she said.

She now chairs LEAC's electric-vehicle subcommittee, which came up with the proposal to require EV chargers at multi-family housing. "Driving electric cars saves you money, and people who live in multi-family housing could use that the most," Boschert said.

In the 20 years she's been driving electric vehicles, she said, "All I've done for maintenance on my car is rotate the tires and refill the window washer fluid. That's it."

"Everybody deserves a shot at that," Boschert said. "Not just people who live in single-family homes."

When Kilton Library was built in West Lebanon in 2010, it was the first public library in the state to be certified as a LEED Gold building, an architectural rating of energy efficiency.

When the new library was first envisioned, the 2008 economic crash had just occurred, recalled librarian Sean Fleming. Interest rates were low, and unemployment was high.

The idea of a green building, Fleming said, was compelling for city leaders — and for donors, who raised $4 million, two-thirds of the cost of the new library. "A lot of the donors were motivated by the fact this was going to be a building that didn't use fossil fuels," he said.

The library has ground-source heat pumps and concrete slabs that generate radiant heat, and an energy recovery unit adds to the efficiency. The floor tiles are made from green materials that can be recycled, and even the paint was low VOC (volatile organic compounds).

Of course, there's a large solar array on the roof.

Over at Civic Memorial Field, a recreation department building uses heat pumps in addition to solar panels for heating and cooling. That technology, Montgomery said, is as important as solar. "This is how we are going to de-carbonize the city," he said.

It's in the air, too

City Manager Muholland, a former police chief in Allenstown, said the city recently installed infrastructure at the police station to charge electric cruisers when they become available. Electric fire trucks also are on the table once the technology arrives, he said.

"I have no doubt that electric vehicles will be the future," he said.

"For right now, our goal is to make sure our infrastructure, our buildings, are ready for that," he said.

They're also working with Liberty Utilities to create a "microgrid" that would keep the police station and other buildings powered if the grid ever goes down.

Mulholland is undaunted by skeptics. "I'm sure when the United States Army went from horse cavalry to vehicles at the turn of the last century, people said, 'This is never going to happen. These things are never going to work; they're too fragile.'

"Well, here we are," he said.

Electric airplanes also are coming to Lebanon, according to Carl Gross, manager of Lebanon Municipal Airport.

The airport's commercial carrier, Cape Air, is working with a company called Eviation, which has developed a nine-seat aircraft they call Alice, Gross said. "Cape Air has a deposit for 50 of the aircraft," he said.

Eviation held its first successful test flight last month in Washington state. The plane's estimated range is about 400 nautical miles, Gross said.

Other companies are testing electric aircraft for short-duration flights, he said. One company, Joby, is proposing what it calls "electric aerial ridesharing," using electric-powered aircraft that take off and land vertically. "It's almost like a helicopter, but scheduled like an Uber," Gross said.

"So with all of this happening, smaller airports like Lebanon are going to be some of those airports where you're going to see the electric aircraft come into," Gross said.

Airport officials are working with an engineering firm to figure out what the power needs will be to charge such aircraft. "The goal is to be ready to switch the electric infrastructure on when the aircraft start flying," Gross said.

The airport is planning to install additional solar arrays for the aircraft hangar and terminal building, which eventually could help power the charging stations.

It's an exciting time to be in his line of work, Gross said. "If I had a crystal ball, and was going to be around another 100 years, I'd love to see what's coming," he said.

"We need to be better stewards of the planet, and I think this is a great step that aviation is heading in."

Little changes, big changes

It's not only municipal departments that are moving toward sustainability. Lebanon's private sector is embracing it as well.

At Hypertherm, employee benefits include paying people to carpool, bike or take public transportation to work, offering van pools to outlying areas, and rewarding employees who drive high-efficiency vehicles.

Robin Tindall, the company's environmental stewardship team leader, said the company began measuring its energy usage about 12 years ago.

"We were surprised at how much our commuting contributed to our full company's carbon footprint," she said.

Hypertherm, which manufactures industrial cutting equipment and software and has 1,100 employees in the Upper Valley, installed electric vehicle chargers outside its buildings so EV owners can charge up while at work. "They definitely have encouraged people to feel more comfortable in getting an EV," Tindall said.

In fact, there's so much competition for using the chargers — and resulting aggravation — that Tindall's team came up with an app for employees to schedule time at the chargers.

Hypertherm has been on the cutting edge for 10 years, Tindall said, but other forward-thinking companies are starting to catch up. Her team is now working on long-term plans for sustainability.

"It feels like we're going to have to accelerate and move more quickly in order to keep our reputation and live up to our values, of doing everything that we can and everything that we should, and doing it maybe faster and better than others," Tindall said.

Not all of Lebanon's efforts are large-scale.

A new pilot project lets individual city residents track, and reduce, their carbon footprints, using an app called SNAPP.

"Reduction is the new recycling," said Jonathan Chaffee, president of Sustainable Lebanon, the grassroots group behind the initiative. Composting food waste, taking a shorter shower, using public transportation instead of driving can all make a difference, he said.

The app, he said, "focuses your attention on your behavior, and that attention and focus continues throughout the day."

In Lebanon, the pilot program will run for 12 weeks, and participants will then share results and strategies.

"We can't do everything, but we don't have to do everything," Chaffee said. "A little bit accumulated across a lot of people makes a big difference."

City Manager Mulholland said addressing climate change is everyone's responsibility.

"We're the folks where the rubber meets the road," Mulholland said. "It's not somebody else's job. It's our job to do this.

In Lebanon, he said, "We're doing this."