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‘Where the Rubber Meets the Road’

After 32 Years, NESEA Has an Audience for Sustainable Energy Education
David Barclay

David Barclay, executive director of NESEA, in the organization’s Greenfield offices.

Staff at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Assoc. in Greenfield say their phones have been ringing more than ever, and that is bolstering their efforts to create a larger national presence for the organization, which has been educating business professionals and the public about renewable energy for three decades. The road ahead is still long and winding, but as NESEA’s executive director says, this group has the means — and the drive — to reach its destination.

David Barclay says that sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Assoc., headquartered in Greenfield, he explained that NESEA began 32 years ago, in the midst of the oil embargo of the ’70s that created mass shortages across the country. At the time, U.S. cars got an average of 25 miles per gallon.

“That’s almost exactly what it is today,” he said, noting further that Ford Model Ts, in their heyday of the 1920s, also got about 25 miles to the gallon.

It’s an illustration of the steady pace of the use of fossil fuels in the country since the advent of the automobile, but also of the energy-saving practices of its residents, which generally tend to be more reactive than proactive.

“There is a tendency now, as then, to get concerned about energy when it is scarce, and not when it isn’t,” he said. “At the time of our inception, as the fuel shortage became less of an issue, many states did away with their energy offices.”

But Barclay has hope for the future. NESEA, a non-profit organization made up of about 2,000 members, is seeing its fastest-growing years on record, and is functioning in a world that, increasingly, sees the value and the importance of its mission: to bring clean electricity, green transportation, and healthy, efficient buildings into everyday use, in order to strengthen the economy and improve the environment.

“What is notably different now are rapidly rising prices and catastrophic climate change,” he said. “Those are realities that have captured people’s attention — in a largely positive way.”

‘The Energy Crisis Has Everyone’s Attention’

Now, NESEA is moving ahead with plans to capitalize on this new awareness, working to increase its membership, which is largely made up of business owners and their employees spanning a 10-state area from Washington, D.C. to Maine.

The organization also hopes to grow and expand its many professional networking and educational programs, and to become a greater presence across the nation in general — its work has been most successful in New England for many years, and Barclay said the time is right to expand west.

A dozen NESEA chapters are now scattered across the Northeast, and members pay annual dues to the organization. About two-thirds of the group’s funding is derived from its membership, either through fees, donations, or revenue from programs hosted by NESEA, the costs of which are often offset by regional and national sponsors. An annual fund drive is also held, and in general terms, the balance of NESEA’s $1.3 million annual operating budget is funded through state, federal, and foundation grants.

Key NESEA programs include building workshops and conferences for professionals, including the largest and longest-running energy conference in the Northeast each year, the Building Energy Conference.

There is also still a strong emphasis on energy-efficient transportation practices, and the organization has a robust education division, which creates programs for both children and adults, and also writes curriculum for school systems.

The Greenfield Energy Park, adjacent to NESEA’s offices, is a local educational offering, including resources and classes for all ages — from business owners to school children.

The group first planted its roots in Greenfield, moving to Brattleboro, Vt. for a time before its current location, on Miles Street in Greenfield, became available. NESEA acquired its headquarters in 1996, and since that time has served as an advocate for several types of sustainable energy, including solar, wind, and hydro-power.

Sandy Thomas, Project Manager for NESEA’s Building Energy Conference and director of the Greenfield Energy Park, said she too has seen vastly increased awareness of NESEA’s work, a development that is as telling as it is encouraging.

“There has been a sharp rise in interest, especially among business professionals,” she said. “The energy crisis has everyone’s attention, and there is a feeling that this is where the rubber meets the road.”

Thomas added that NESEA is in a unique position to help business professionals make choices in regard to sustainable energy.

“There aren’t very many organizations where designers, policy makers, engineers, architects, builders, and many others can join together,” she said. “We network people who need to know each other, and people are listening … they’re calling more than ever, and demanding to know the facts.”

When asked if the new interest NESEA is generating is bittersweet given the many years the group has been advocating the same message, Thomas said she understands the delay.

“Change comes hard to people,” she explained. “The greater number of people listening is icing on the cake for us. I think more people are taking their impact on the environment more personally, hearing these predictions of struggle ahead, and hoping to make the world a better place for their kids and grandkids.”

‘The Means to Get There’

There are other advances that are pushing NESEA’s mission ahead, said Barclay – including the gradual leveling of costs associated with ‘going green.’

“There is a myth that it costs more to be green, and I want to break that myth,” he said, noting that while some green building and energy still costs more than conventional tactics, the returns are better than they’ve ever been, and new techniques and technology are driving those prices down.

“It’s easier with new construction, because you’re not limited to what can be done within an existing design,” he said. “But architects and engineers in particular are consistently finding new ways to reduce consumption at no additional cost.”

Wind power, for instance, is now on par with the price of conventional forms of energy production, said Barclay. Solar still has a way to go to reach that point, but he expects that a decade from now, use thereof will have driven that price down, too.

“To expand the use of renewable energy, individuals, the private sector, and the government all have to work together,” he said. “By connecting businesses to one another and continuing our educational efforts, we have the means to get there.”

‘Planting Seeds Early’

Moving forward, NESEA is now in the midst of a number of initiatives aimed at reaching larger audiences across the country.

“NESEA has traditionally been a New England organization, and we are attempting to broaden that,” said Barclay. “That’s a major effort. We’re working with our chapters to expand their rolls, and we have a much larger public outreach effort underway, to connect with consumers or to connect them with the professionals involved with our organization who can help them succeed with renewable energy practices.”

NESEA’s educational programs are also in the process of expanding — the division’s director, Chris Mason, said he recently completed a curriculum development project with the Pennsylvania public school system, and would like to hold a conference for educators similar to the Building Energy Conference. To do that, he said at least one major sponsor would be necessary.

“It’s a mission to get this into classrooms across the country,” he said. “There is so much activity in the renewable energy industry that people don’t know about; working with children, we’re planting those seeds early.”

And in broader terms, NESEA is revamping its recruitment and membership programs to attract new members and better serve them. Kevin Maroney, trade show manager for the Building Energy Conference, has also been working with NESEA’s membership base, and said that he’s in the process of creating a comprehensive program to present to new or potential partners.

“It’s geared toward making our organization more attractive,” he said. “We asked ourselves the question: ‘as a membership organization, how can we best serve companies?’ And the answer is largely found through advocacy and public policy, all geared toward allowing smaller companies to get the same attention as large corporations.”

Maroney said NESEA is also working now to put together a discounts package, which would allow members to use their membership for savings within a number of partnering stores and organizations.

“Everything is geared toward sustainability,” he said. “And by sustainability, we mean using renewable resources, but also ensuring our members stay in business. Like any industry, there are best practices to learn from. If society is responsible, I think the direction in which we need to move is clear.”

‘We Have an Opportunity to Grow, to Thrive’

Maroney used the metaphor of the American auto industry to illustrate his point — it is imagery that seems prevalent within NESEA’s offices.

“We can learn a lot from that industry — from what worked, and what did not,” he said. “The big thing that has not gone well has been sustainability. I think that’s an issue that started very early on for car manufacturers, and many problems can be rectified if they’re addressed early.

“In my opinion,” Maroney said of the renewable energy sector, “our industry is in its infancy. We have an opportunity to grow, to thrive, and to see what’s working, and what isn’t … by doing that, we can make things happen.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]