The Center for All Seasons is a vital community hub for Belgrade, offering everything from basketball and yoga to summer youth programs and bean-hole suppers. And while the lakeside building is less than 20 years old, the lighting, according to Town Manager Anthony Wilson, leaves something to be desired.

“The fixtures are attractive,” he said, “but they just don’t emit a lot of light. It’s a rather dark environment, inside and outside the building.”

So Wilson was immediately interested when he learned about a new grant program for towns with fewer than 4,000 residents, designed to cover up to 75 percent of the cost of replacing outdated lighting with energy-efficient LED fixtures and bulbs. The incentive, offered by the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Efficiency Maine, is aimed at cutting electricity use and the associated power plant emissions linked to climate change.

As of mid-December, 16 municipalities including Belgrade had accepted a grant. Another 20 were considering it. The offer runs through January.

In Belgrade, a rural community of woodland and lakes north of Augusta, the change-out will cost nearly $16,000. Efficiency Maine will pay $4,171 and the Nature Conservancy will chip in $2,112. The town will fund the $9,582 balance with capital reserves. The investment made sense to the town’s select board, Wilson said, because the community center will get better lighting and cut its $4,750 average annual electric bill.

“In a small town,” Wilson said, “$6,000 in the budget is real money. Without Efficiency Maine and The Nature Conservancy, I’m not sure we’d get the project done. That’s either a deal maker or a deal breaker.”

The Nature Conservancy is best known for land preservation. The lighting upgrade is a pilot project that represents a new, global push to engage on climate change issues, according to Rob Wood, director of government relations and climate policy.

Two years ago, the group surveyed Maine’s nearly 500 municipalities about clean energy priorities. It heard back from 132 of them and found that many wanted to do more with energy efficiency and solar energy, but lacked the money. That led the group to pursue and win a $50,000 grant to piggyback on an existing Efficiency Maine program, with the goal of offsetting 75 percent of total project cost. Seventy-five percent seems like a sweet spot for small business, Wood said. It creates an overwhelming incentive to come up with the balance.

That’s how the deal appeared in Easton, a small farming and manufacturing community between Presque Isle and the New Brunswick border.

Easton already had changed its streetlights to LEDs under a program run through Emera Maine, the regional utility. That cut the streetlight electric bill in half.

“Efficiency Maine and The Nature Conservancy came to us with a similar program that would do the same thing with our municipal building and town garage,” said Jim Gardner, the town manager. “That has 65 percent of the cost taken care of.”

The town garage was built in 1983. The town office was remodeled in 1991. Both have fluorescent fixtures that in their day were more efficient than incandescent bulbs but are energy hogs by modern standards. LEDs last many years longer. They also provide the same light output, while using 75 percent less power than an incandescent and roughly half the electricity of comparable fluorescent fixtures.

Lighting inside the Center For All Seasons in Belgrade. The town will be using a grant to replace lighting inside and outside of the community center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Easton plans to switch out 80 fixtures, at a cost of $16,900. The town will get $9,100 from grants and pay the $7,000 balance. Gardner estimates the investment will pay for itself in three to four years. A contractor approved by Efficiency Maine plans to complete the work by Jan. 20.

Easton has its own high school and had upgraded lighting there a few years ago, with an Efficiency Maine grant. This latest energy improvement has town leaders thinking about solar panels somewhere in town as a next possible step, Gardner said.

Tax impact and overall finances still drive spending decisions in small towns, noted Eric Conrad, director of communications and educational services at the Maine Municipal Association. But increasingly, community leaders want more information about sustainability and clean-energy options, such as siting solar arrays on closed landfills. In response, the association is expanding next year’s annual technology conference in April to include energy topics.

“Our members are telling us, ‘We’re interested in this more than we were ten to 20 years ago,” Conrad said.

Part of the reason, he added, is that the stable economy is giving towns an opportunity to look ahead and think about more than essentials, such as a sufficient budget to plow the roads. But towns are still inclined to perform a cost-benefit analysis on lighting upgrades, Conrad suggested, just as a homeowner might before buying new bulbs at the store.

In addition to Belgrade and Easton, communities that have accepted the lighting grant include Calais, Carthage, Columbia, Fryeburg, Island Falls, Isle au Haut, Machiasport, Mattawamkeag, Searsport, Stockholm, Surry, Washburn, West Bath and Westfield.

Some projects may be quite modest, by comparison. The western Maine town of Fryeburg had already done a recent LED upgrade in most town buildings, using an existing Efficiency Maine grant program. But there’s still an opportunity to install more efficient lighting in a fire station, according to Katie Haley, the town manager. The project will cost $3,000, and the estimated payback is three years. The pilot program will offset 75 percent of the investment.

For each project, contractors are being asked to quantify the estimated energy savings. That will allow The Nature Conservancy at some point to measure the climate-change impact, with greenhouse gas emissions being the key metric.


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