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Energy Solutions

Solar Energy – Insulate First!

I moved to Brattleboro, Vermont 28 years ago to work for an organization that was all about promoting solar energy—an industry that blossomed out of the energy crisis in the 1970s. When the problem is dependence on an energy source that’s non-renewable, that comes from far away and sucks money out of our local economy, that pollutes our air when we burn it, and that contributes to global warming, it makes a lot of sense to look for an alternative that’s renewable, available locally, and environmentally safe. Solar energy is just such a solution.

Indeed, when I tell people I’m writing a column about “energy solutions” I often hear all about their ideas for putting solar panels on their roofs. Solar is the energy solution that often comes to mind first. So how is it that I’ve been writing this column about energy for a third of a year and have barely mentioned solar? What could be more important than a clean, renewable, widely available energy source as the solution to our energy woes?

Despite my background with solar energy in New Mexico and then in Brattleboro as director of the New England Solar Energy Association (now the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association) in the early 1980s, I very intentionally avoided diving right into solar with this column. Solar energy is a supply-side solution to energy and climate change concerns, and a far higher priority is to reduce the amount of energy we need. It is these “demand-side” solutions to energy use that I’ve so far been focusing most of my attention on with this column.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan and proponent of solar energy—this will be the first of several articles focused on it—but it’s important to think of solar as something that makes sense to do after we’ve done a whole lot of energy conservation work. In trying to reduce home energy costs, it’s almost always more cost-effective to spend a lot of money on insulating, weatherizing, and window replacement before you start writing checks for solar collectors. Once you get your energy consumption way down, solar energy is a tremendous way to supply those much smaller loads. Weaning ourselves from fossil fuel use—including foreign oil—should be a high priority for us as individuals and for us as a society.

Over the next three weeks, I’m going to address three ways of benefiting from solar energy: passive solar heating, solar water heating, and photovoltaics (solar electricity). The first of these has to do with building design—using building elements like windows, walls, and floors to collect, store, and distribute solar energy—so it’s much easier to implement this approach in new construction or with a major addition. Solar water heating and photovoltaic systems typically make use of solar collectors mounted on the roof to heat water or generate electricity.

There are two “Button Up Vermont” workshops being offered locally, both featuring Keith Abbott of Thermal House, a leading energy auditing and weatherization company in Jamaica, VT; other local businesses and experts will be on hand. The first will be Saturday, November 1st, from 9:00 to 11:30 AM at the BUHS multipurpose room. The second will be Saturday, November 8th, from 10 AM to 2 PM at the Putney Community Center on Christian Square. Both of these workshops are free and presented by Central Vermont Community Action Council, the State of Vermont, and the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN). The November 1st program is co-sponsored by Brattleboro Climate Protection and the Windham Regional Career Center; for information contact Paul Cameron at 251-8135. The November 8th program is co-sponsored by the Putney Energy Committee and the Dummerston Energy Committee; for information contact Daniel Hoviss at 387-2521.

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