In the current list of New Hampshire job openings, the coolest title has to be Energy Circuit Rider.
If you’re as old as me your first thought was “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” but the job does not involve riding horses. At least, it doesn’thave to involve riding horses, since the current Energy Circuit River’s job is equine-free, although I suppose it could.
What it does involve is the sort of slow and steady personal interaction that is needed to make social change, including changing our economy so it doesn’t make the planet unlivable. All the laws and regulations and green goals in the world don’t really matter if nobody is out there showing people, one-on-one, how to take advantage of them.
“When I started (in 2019) I reached out to communities, but I didn’t hear from anybody. … So I just started showing up at select board meetings,” said Melissa Elander, North Country energy circuit rider for the non-profit organization Clean Energy New Hampshire.
Speaking as somebody who has attended more select board meetings than I care to remember, this is a sign of commitment.
Elander’s job is to help towns, cities and school districts in Coos and Grafton counties save money on their energy bills while also being cleaner. This involves a lot of traveling around – hence the title “circuit rider,” created to describe judges who traveled from town to town to hold court back in horse-riding days.
She has been so successful that Clean Energy NH is looking for an Energy Circuit Rider in the Monadnock Region as well as a manager for the Circuit Rider program.
“The goal is to make it statewide,” said CENH Executive Director Sam Evans-Brown of the program, which is funded, like the organization, by grants and donations.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the shiny bauble of photovoltaic panels shows up early in most of Elander’s conversations. It’s almost never the whole answer but it’s a great starting point.
“Solar is exciting … it’s sexy. It can be the gateway,” said Elander.
Once solar gets their attention, Elander can discuss important ideas like increasing insulation, changing some practices or lowering usage through tech upgrades: “If we do some LED lightbulbs and wrap some of your pipes, it’ll drop your usage and your solar is going to cost less upfront.”
But as you will not be surprised to learn, the most important conversations involve money. “I have not had a project that could go forward that has not received considerable outside grants,” Elander said.
This is to be expected since police stations, roads and schools also don’t get built without considerable outside grants, but it’s still annoying. Small towns and school districts rarely have the expertise to make full use of grants and loans and other sources of funding. That’s especially true in a fast-changing arena like energy, which has just been scrambled anew (in a good way) by the huge climate bill signed by President Biden.
So the biggest part of Elander’s role, she said, is “finding free money for people.”
Money is also the most persuasive incentive for places that haven’t thought much about clean energy, she said. As an example, Elander said the tiny town of Shelburne was “making money in year one” by saving more in its electric bills after making upgrades than it was paying on the bond.
“I never go with the climate change argument front and center,” Elander said. “Saving taxpayers’ money … that’s the best argument.”
As for convincing taxpayers to handle any upfront cost, Elander pointed to Stratford, a town of 660 with the lowest median income of any municipality in New Hampshire.
“They have been the most active community I have worked with, they deserve so much recognition for what they have done: energy audits, upgrades, they’ve done phase I of transition to solar, heat pumps,” she said.
If they can do it, everybody can. And looking at my latest tax bill, they should.
Hi-yo, energy – away!