By Mark Morris
One modest act can inspire others — and when that happens, the entire community benefits.
That’s the premise behind the Cooler Communities effort led by Uli Nagel, project director for Ener-G-Save, a program run by the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation.
Cooler Communities (the word ‘Cooler’ refers to reducing global warming) encourages school systems in Western Mass. to take on class projects relating to energy and energy efficiency. These projects are then displayed at a public exhibition in the community, where all attendees are asked to pledge one action they will take to conserve energy.
“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy,” Nagel said. Staff from Ener-G-Save keep a running total on pledged actions to measure their impact on the community.
For example, in 2019, Agawam schools held a Cooler Communities event in which 115 people took an energy-conservation pledge. Ener-G-Save estimated that follow-through by those Agawam residents would result in $87,600 in energy savings and 605 tons of carbon emissions eliminated from the air every year.
“Put another way, the energy-saving impact would be similar to removing 86 cars from Agawam roads every year,” Nagel said, demonstrating the impact from just one town.
The Cooler Communities efforts have continued this spring in the Berkshires and Agawam. This is the first year Springfield is taking part, as more than 1,000 high-school students have researched energy-related topics and recommended different actions they and their peers can take to make Springfield a safer, cleaner, and healthier place to live.
“Whether a person replaces standard light bulbs with LEDs or decides to buy an electric car, we encourage every action that saves energy.”
Nagel credited Springfield school officials for taking on Cooler Communities during the challenging year everyone has faced due to COVID-19 concerns. Ron St. Amand, director of Science for Springfield schools, appreciates the educational opportunity.
“It’s exciting to be able to help our students understand their choices have an impact,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”
To properly display all the student exhibits and invite others to take actions on saving energy, Ener-G-Save worked with Springfield to develop a dedicated website to make the effort accessible to everyone at a time when in-person exhibits are not possible.
Nagel pointed out that setting up a virtual exhibit has definite advantages because more people can see all the student projects and pledge to reduce their energy usage online.
“The Berkshires Cooler Communities online event drew 600 visitors to the site, nearly double the number who attended the live event the year before,” Nagel said. “Keeping the exhibits and information online encourages more people to take part in the experience.”
A similar effort to raise awareness and take action on environmental challenges, known as Sustainathon, is happening at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). This effort, now in its fourth year, brings together STCC students and high-school students to create awareness of environmental-sustainability challenges and how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields contribute to finding solutions.
Reena Randhir, director of STEM Starter Academy at STCC, said Sustainathon was developed because many students are not aware of environmental efforts in their own backyard.
“While we certainly have environmental challenges, Western Mass. also has many success stories, like turning food waste into fuel,” Randhir said. “People from other countries are studying what’s happening here, so our students should also be on top of these innovations.”
Similar to Cooler Communities, students who take part in Sustainathon create exhibits relating to environmental issues and present them at a public event. Because of COVID concerns, the public event switched to a livestream on April 14 that attracted more than 800 registrants. While Randhir hopes to once again hold Sustainathon in-person, moving online this year turned it into an international happening.
“This is a great opportunity to empower students to save energy, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.”
“Nearly 80 people from India participated in the live event, as well as smaller numbers of students from five other countries,” she said. “By livestreaming, we were able to reach classrooms around the world as well as our own students.”
The Sustainathon also encourages participants to pledge at least one action to benefit the environment, Randhir said. “We hope everyone is a champion of change in their life. Even the simple act of eliminating the use of plastic bags can make a difference.”
One of the actions she and her students had planned was a tree-planting campaign around Western Mass. timed for Earth Day on April 22.
The Grinspoon Foundation and the Community Fund of Western Massachusetts have come together to provide $5,000 grants to the school systems taking part in Cooler Communities efforts. Nagel explained that philanthropist (and recent BusinessWest Difference Maker) Harold Grinspoon started Ener-G-Save because, as a real-estate developer, he was always troubled by energy-inefficient New England homes that commonly leaked heat from roofs, windows, and walls.
“Harold made it his goal to raise awareness of energy efficiency to help people spend less money on energy that is, literally, going out the window,” Nagel said. At one point, Ener-G-Save took drive-by thermal images of 100,000 homes in Western Mass. and encouraged homeowners with the worst heat leakage to take advantage of free energy audits from Mass Save.
Every Bit Helps
Though a number of the energy-saving pledges are tied to home ownership, Nagel said one doesn’t need to own a home to find plenty of ways to make a difference. “Simple acts like stopping junk mail and including more meat-free meals in your diet are two easy things anyone can do that benefit you and the environment.”
She also suggested riding a bike for a short trip instead of driving a car and, when using a car to run errands, consolidating trips to save gas and time.
“Energy use and conservation are huge topics,” Nagel said. “When we see the simple things others are doing that make a difference, we are less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to act.”