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Addressing Berkshires' Energy Costs

Jim Levulis

Businesses and individuals in Western Massachusetts are learning about a variety of options to address energy costs.

Sustainable Berkshires is an effort by the county’s Regional Planning Commission to curb the area’s fuel consumption and increase its renewable energy resources. The Commission’s Lauren Gaherty is working on the project. She says climate change has led to an increase in droughts, flooding and washouts resulting from more numerous severe weather events like Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. She adds a warming climate will alter the region’s sugar maple trees, which draw tourists during the fall months.

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

“Our hillsides won’t be as red and yellow probably,” Gaherty said. “We’ll be losing some of our spruces which give you that green contrast against the deciduous trees. So we’re going to look a little different.”

Gaherty says Berkshire County doesn’t use a lot of energy and won’t alter global warming alone, but it can be part of a wider solution. Sustainable Berkshires is primarily focusing on how businesses can reduce their fuel consumption and even generate their own energy through solar, wind, and hydro power. The county imports 93 percent of the fuel it uses, while the remaining seven percent is generated through a total of 338 renewable energy projects. 

Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

“If we can try to use energy more wisely or we can generate it at home, it actually helps our businesses stay more viable,” she said. “That money that’s not going out for fuel costs can be reinvested in the community or the company.”

Gaherty says the price of solar panels has come down 30 percent in the last few years, with the average building able to pay back its investment in about five years. However, solar doesn’t produce nearly as much power as wind turbines. While there are more than 325 solar projects, just five wind projects generate more than 75 percent of the county’s renewable energy. Still, wind energy remains controversial; with towns throughout the county supporting and rejecting proposals as national studies produce conflicting results regarding the potential health impacts. Gaherty says large companies have the staffing to address energy policies, but that’s not the case with small businesses.

“The backbone of our economy is our smaller businesses,” Gaherty said. “They don’t have the staff to do that. They are working all day long trying to run their business, pay the mortgage, pay the utility bill, and make sure the insurance is paid for the employees.”

Sustainable Berkshires is recommending those smaller businesses hire an “energy circuit rider” to assist companies step by step through energy audits and incentives offered by utility companies through the Mass Save program. Nancy Nylen is the Associate Director of the Center for EcoTechnology. The company is contracted by Berkshire Gas and National Grid to provide energy assessments and make recommendations for individuals on how to make their homes more efficient. These include installing new lighting, sealing cracks and improving insulation and heating systems. Most of these services are provided at no cost to the homeowner or are largely paid for by the utility companies.

“There are opportunities now for people to in essence lease their roofs,” Nylen said. “A company could come in, install solar, and you would not have up-front cost, or a very nominal up-front cost. Then you purchase the electricity from them at a reduced rate.”

Gaherty understands people cannot become independent of fossil fuels overnight, especially because transportation is the largest producer of carbon emissions in the county.

“We are spread out,” Gaherty said. “Our transit is limited not only to certain parts of the county, but also certain parts of the day. So that is the toughest one to crack. Unfortunately it’s 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. It’s so difficult to try to change behaviors of the individuals.” 

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