Two decades later, energy ideas still powerful

CORNWALL — Flipping through the pages of "Renewable Energy in Northwest Connecticut" feels like being thrown into a time warp.

The print and the somewhat yellowed pages hint that the paperbound book was published some time ago (in 1981, as a matter of fact). But the concepts, and more significantly, the opportunity presented in its pages couldn’t be more current (no pun intended).

One of the authors is William Morrill, a retired Salisbury attorney. He applied the term "déja vu" when asked about the book this week. He had nearly forgotten about it, but agreed that the ideas put forth in it more than 25 years ago easily apply to conditions today.

"The essential concepts of greater utilization of green energy are the same. The tools have improved greatly, but the main concept of everyone using energy more efficiently and doing even small things to conserve in their own homes is the same," Morrill said.

It is somewhat sobering to realize that today’s energy problems might have been avoided if more people had made a greater effort over the years.

"We could have avoided the high cost of energy, the pollution and climate issues and the need for the military to defend our energy supplies," Morrill said.

Likewise, co-author Gordon Ridgway sees inspiration in "Renewable Energy in Northwest Connecticut."

As Cornwall’s first selectman, he is behind a push to increase the use of alternative energy sources in Cornwall and beyond.

The town will hold a forum April 7 open to everyone interested in hearing from representatives of SmartPower, which provides incentives for renewable energy use, and the companies that supply power to Connecticut from wind, landfill gases and small hydroplants.

He is hopeful the presentation will dissuade people from thinking that switching energy suppliers is difficult and confusing.

Ridgway and Morrill, with funding and guidance from the Berkshire Litchfield Environmental Council, were inspired to do monumental amounts of research for the book because they wanted to offer a workable and understandable approach to independent energy production on local farms and homes.

Both authors stressed they are not experts on the subject. But they believe the fact that they could easily find information, and just as easily disseminate it, proves that the concepts are manageable. The first step, though, is getting people out of their comfort zones.

"It was written on the heels of the last great energy crisis, in the late ’70s, when we thought we were running out of oil," Ridgway said. "A hydroelectric facility was proposed for the top of Canaan Mountain. It was going to be flooded with a big reservoir and would have had a huge environmental impact."

The project fell through, but a handful of people refused to simply breathe a sigh of relief. A smattering of homes with solar, geothermal and hydroenergy sources quietly exist in the Northwest hills. The Berkshire-Litchfield Environmental Council continues to quietly keep an eye on things.

Several years after the book came out, Ridgway built his solar-powered home on Town Street in Cornwall. The years since have proven how easily it can be done. The Ridgway family runs a small produce farm there. They use the regional electricity grid only to power fans and pumps in their greenhouse. Their biggest energy-related bill is $200 to $300 per year for gasoline for a generator that picks up the slack in the winter months when there isn’t sufficient sunlight.

"I think the $5,000 cost for the system 22 years ago has paid for itself more than a few times over," he said.

Morrill, who has heated his Salisbury home with wood since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, said the book promotes what experts agree is the answer to energy needs and environmental issues.

"Even green energy, such as hydropower plants or energy from wind power, can have an environmental impact when they are large enough to meet need," he said. "People need to take action in their homes, not necessarily take themselves off the grid, but reduce their need."

That comfort zone of energy use is being able to flip a switch, Morrill said. But high electric bills are making it less and less comfortable.

He suggested simple fixes, such as replacing burned-out incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, adding insulation and buying new, energy-efficient appliances. Very important is tracking electrical usage on your electric bill. Not the dollar amount, because costs change, but the kilowatt hours. Bills include a bar chart that maps out an entire year of usage. Morrill’s bill shows a very measurable drop of about 20 percent in kilowatt hours since he replaced all his light bulbs six months ago.

"Some things really don’t cost anything. Some require an investment. There’s no free lunch here. It should be about the environment, but is a price-driven thing for most people. The cost of gasoline and energy should have their attention right now. I know if they made the commitment to investing in energy efficiency they would soon see a difference in their own pocket, and if that’s what it takes to get everyone doing it, that’s the way to go."

Ridgway said the book is not readily available. He keeps a copy at Town Hall and some folks in the area may have copies to loan.

Cornwall’s efforts to convert residents to green power makes them eligible for related grants.

"We’ve applied for a $5,000 grant. If we get it, maybe we’ll use some of it to do a new printing of the book."



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