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Can College Kids Help Mass. Towns Go Green?

Let Us Introduce the UMass Clean Energy Corps

Ask town officials what they think in Ware. Ask them in Natick, and in Greenfield. Palmer too.

These are some of the towns where the new UMass Clean Energy Corps has touched down in the few months since its founding. The Corps is a student-centered initiative focused on helping communities across the Commonwealth develop and meet their clean energy goals. It was created by UMass Clean Energy Extension, a research and outreach program that in its first two years of life has been helping transform communities and businesses into cleaner, more efficient places to live, work, and grow into the future.

UMass Clean Energy Extension is a program of UMass Extension (or as it was once known, Cooperative Extension), which, for over a hundred years, has been known as a go-to organization, a place to find helpful answers, real support and unbiased information. It is also a partnership with several UMass Amherst departments and is supported by the state Department of Energy Resources (DOER).

The Clean Energy Corps got its start in the summer of 2016 when Dwayne Breger, Clean Energy Extension (CEE) Director and Ben Weil, extension assistant professor in building energy, invited undergrads to help them pilot a new community outreach program.

Weil and Breger, along with staff members Chris Beebe, Lauren Mattison, and River Strong (all energy and/or mechanical engineers), are working closely with groups of students to provide energy analysis and consulting services to Mass. municipalities that are involved with the Green Communities program – a DOER effort dedicated to helping cities and towns identify and implement clean energy solutions that reduce costs and strengthen local economies. The Green Communities designation requires an energy-usage inventory and a plan to reduce energy use by 20% within five years.

CEE Assistant Director River Strong lays out two clear goals for the Clean Energy Corps:

  • to help students obtain hands-on, real-world experience, and
  • to link communities to the help they need to understand and reduce their energy use.

That help generally comes in two phases: first, students and staff – working in partnership with municipal staff, officials, and regional planning agencies – perform a baseline assessment of how much energy is used in public buildings and publically-owned vehicles.  They analyze energy bills and total gas, oil, diesel and electricity usage. Next, the Clean Energy Corps assists the town to integrate these findings into the energy-specific portion of the Green Communities application. Once awarded status as Green Communities, the towns become eligible to receive funding to implement cost-saving projects.

The Clean Energy Corps is already proving its value. In its first summer, the Corps helped Greenfield eliminate dependence on an old steam system in their town hall and reduce wasted energy in some schools. In addition, UMass students worked with town leaders in Erving, Southampton, and Ware to submit Green Communities applications. 

Helping Transform Students’ Experiences

UMass student, Kevin Calantone('17) demonstates use of infrared camera Inspired by his “boots on the ground” work through UMass Clean Energy Corps, Kevin Calantone (’17 of Randolph, New Jersey) is now planning a career in building construction technology, one in which he intends to put his energy education to work. Calantone completed course work in the UMass Building Construction Technology program and interned with the Clean Energy Extension where he now serves as lead student of the Clean Energy Corps.  Kevin has turned his course knowledge and internship experience into practical energy consultation as he provides energy analysis to towns throughout western Massachusetts. 

He says, “I am a big fan of the energy program at UMass Amherst. By having the chance to work directly with municipal leaders, I incorporated my course work and increased my knowledge of energy-efficiency and renewable energy. The professional experience and expertise in how to conduct myself in meetings will give me a foot up when I graduate.

“My newfound communication and writing skills will be put to the test when I help as a Teaching Assistant with Professor Weil’s new spring course,” Calantone continued. Professor Ben Weil rolled out a new spring course called “Special Topics - Clean Energy Corps.” It has attracted an interdisciplinary mix of students from environmental studies, building construction technology, sustainability science, and engineering. The three-credit service-learning class will train students to provide advanced energy audits and analysis as they learn the fundamentals of energy management and energy efficiency. Their final project will be to generate consultant reports to cities and towns. Such practical experience is often requested by students (and their parents) to help with their transition from college to employment.

Ware is Becoming Green

Ware, population 9,700, is committed to reducing energy use. Town Manager Stuart Beckley was put in contact with UMass Clean Energy Extension through DOER western regional coordinator Jim Berry.  Beckley said, “UMass was terrifically helpful in keeping us moving forward with the application process. Getting technical information and direction from them was very useful. Hopefully, we will get designated as a Green Community and implement our projects. We plan to keep working with UMass to see we are on track with energy savings they proposed.”  That sentiment was echoed by Ware resident Clayton Sydla, who serves on Ware’s Green Community committee. “If any city or town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is thinking about becoming a Green Community, they would do well to use the UMass Clean Energy Extension team. Words can't express how good they were. From the day that we asked for help, we had emails every week keeping us informed on our next step and Kevin kept us right on schedule. You won't be disappointed.” 

Case Studies Help Show the Way, from Eastern Mass. to West

What do Cambridge, Arlington, Natick, Palmer, Sutton, Springfield, and Belchertown have in common? They are all Green Communities that have succeeded in meeting their 20% energy reduction goals. CEE Staffer Lauren Mattison has created case studies for the seven so others can learn from their experiences.

Palmer, a rural western Massachusetts town, has reduced annual energy consumption by 62% in its Town Hall with an annual energy cost savings of $55,000. Linda Leduc, Palmer’s Town Planner and Economic Development Director said: “saving energy in town facilities is being fiscally responsible to our residents.” Encouraged by their success with weatherization, boiler upgrades and overall energy improvements, the Town is now exploring the possibility of obtaining an electric vehicle.

Solar energy often comes as a great bargain to municipalities. The Town of Natick began installing solar on municipal buildings in 2012 and currently saves $300,000 a year on electricity from 1.7 megawatts of solar. In 2017, after maximizing available rooftop space for solar, town officials will begin evaluating the opportunity to install solar canopies over municipal parking lots and other public properties - but it does not stop there. Natick has also reached out to private property owners in its utility zone to pursue a "virtual net metering" agreement, an increasingly common arrangement that allows organizations to purchase electricity generated from a solar array located offsite and receive compensation in the form of net metering credits. Using this model, Natick plans to serve as the host customer for two area arrays that are scheduled for construction in 2017. According to Sustainability Coordinator Jillian Wilson-Martin, “The systems will be constructed at no cost to the Town and are expected to reduce electricity costs by an additional $110,000 each year.”

Greenfield was one of the first towns to be designated as a Green Community in 2010. As a result of implementing recommended energy upgrades and installing a solar farm, they have netted $2,000,000 in energy costs over six years and recently surpassed their 20% reduction goal by hitting 22%. Weil says, “This is a good example of collaboration between a municipal sustainability director, Carole Collins, and UMass Extension."

Real changes have brought these towns real savings.

To date, 155 of the 351 communities in the Commonwealth have applied for and been designated as Green Communities. That there are not yet more testifies to the fact that the state sets high bars for communities. They must make meaningful commitments on energy reduction, building codes, zoning and transportation to qualify for the program.  There are times, though, that towns are interested but lack the time and/or expertise to submit an application. Other communities may still be looking for a passionate energy champion to move them forward. In some cases, towns and cities may have begun, but then have trouble meeting goals. Given many demands on town governments, particularly small municipalities, it can feel daunting.  This is the perfect intersection for University of Massachusetts Amherst and the extension model to step in and play a meaningful role. 

To find out how your community could become a designated Green Community and qualify for grants, consult the DOER Green Communities Program website. You can learn more about how your community or business can work with UMass Clean Energy Extension at their website

Interested in saving energy through efficiency in your home? Go to MassSave for assistance tailored to your needs.

Ben Weil shows students how to operate infrared camera to check for thermal leaks
Ben Weil demonstrates proper use of blower door testing
Blower door set up
Sutton Selectmen display Green Community sign
Greenfield switches out old street light bulbs for high efficiency LED bulbs