Springfield, Palmer, Belchertown recognized for energy reduction, as others …

BOSTON – Three communities in Western Massachusetts – Springfield, Palmer and Belchertown – were recognized on Wednesday by Gov. Deval Patrick for reducing their energy usage by more than 20 percent over the last five years through the state’s “Green Communities” program.

Patrick, at an event at the Statehouse, recognized seven cities and towns for meeting that goal and also designated 13 new municipalities as “Green Communities,” a status that allows them to qualify for state money.

Patrick Sullivan, executive director of the Springfield Department of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management, said improvements installed as part of the program have saved Springfield $1.2 million annually in energy savings.

“It’s been huge” for the city, Sullivan said.

The Green Communities Act was passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 2008, with the first Green Communities established in 2010. To qualify as a Green Community, cities and towns must meet certain criteria related to easier permitting for alternative energy facilities, purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles, setting energy-related standards for new construction and developing a plan to reduce municipal energy use by 20 percent after five years.

Overall, cities and towns have had trouble meeting the 20 percent goal, according to a report released Wednesday by the Massachusetts Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs. According to the report, which was based on 2013 annual reports, 17 communities were in their fifth year of the program (communities can start measuring energy savings before they are officially given the designation), and the average reduction in energy usage was 15 percent. At the time, only two communities – Springfield and Natick – had hit 20 percent.

The report found that the greatest factor contributing to the difficulty in reaching 20 percent was limited staff capacity, with some communities relying solely on volunteers to implement the program. Communities also suffered from an inability to communicate between different departments to ensure that all departments were contributing to the energy reduction goal.

As of today, seven communities, including Springfield, Palmer and Belchertown, have met the 20 percent goal.

Springfield has received three state grants totaling $1.25 million, according to state records. The money was to be used mostly for replacing old boilers and instituting energy management systems in schools and municipal buildings.

Michael Gibbons, facility engineer in Springfield, said in addition to upgrading boilers, the city has put in place lighting controls and other energy improvements. It worked with utility companies Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts Electric, which provide reimbursements for energy efficiency repairs.

Springfield has reduced its public energy usage by 26 percent over five years.

“Without the help of the administration leading the way, we would not have been able to procure funding,” Gibbons said.

Palmer has gotten two state grants totaling just under $400,000.

Palmer Town Planner and Economic Development Director Linda Leduc said the town put in place a new boiler and heating system in the town hall, switching from oil to natural gas. It received a grant to upgrade the HVAC system and install an energy management system in the town administration building.

“There’s certainly savings for the entire community. We don’t have to budget as much for energy costs,” Leduc said.

Belchertown received $160,000 for an energy management system at Chestnut Hill Elementary School.

New municipalities designated as Green Communities in Western Massachusetts include Dalton, Goshen, Lanesborough and Warwick. All the newly designated cities and towns received state grants, generally between $130,000 and $170,000. The program also opens up more opportunities for municipalities to receive future state grants for energy improvements.

John Bartels, vice chairman of the board of selectman in Dalton, came to the Statehouse to accept an oversized cardboard check representing a grant of $142,725. Bartels said the money will help with costs related to installing a public charging station for electric cars, updating the heating system in municipal buildings and installing LED street lights. He said the town wants to convert from using oil to natural gas in its town hall. In the long-term, Bartels said, “We’re trying to lower the burden on the taxpayer and on the budget.”

Jim Barry, Western Massachusetts regional coordinator for the state’s Green Communities program, said 44 of the 136 Green Communities in the state are in Western Massachusetts.

“The money’s been used to save taxpayer money on electricity, heating oil, propane, natural gas and diesel fuel, and instead it can be spent on road salt, substitute teachers and (Department of Public Works) help,” Barry said.

Overall, Massachusetts has distributed $38 million in Green Community grants, according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs report. The program has led to an energy savings of 3.2 million MMBtu, the equivalent of the power needed to heat 24,810 Massachusetts homes, according to the report.

In the final days of his term, Patrick, a Democrat, is emphasizing areas where his administration has had an impact. Patrick pointed to the energy efficiency grants as something that will continue to affect municipalities long after he leaves office. The progress report, he said, “illustrates the impact the program is having across the state, from tiny rural communities to our biggest cities and everywhere in between.”

“This experience over the last seven years put to lie the old myth that you can’t have both emphases on renewable energy and a strong economy,” Patrick said.