Granite Geek: David Brooks -- Peterborough to contract with BlocPower on ways to transition away from fossil fuel heat

Published: 05-17-2023 2:32 PM

On the long list of difficult things needed to reduce future climate change, weaning buildings off fossil fuels and onto electricity is near the top of the complexity scale. When you’re talking about a mish-mosh of old buildings in a New England town, it’s practically No. 1.

“What we’ve learned over the 10 or so years doing this is that heat pumps are a fantastic idea but when you go into a home in New England … even if we were giving out heat pumps for free, the barriers to install are pretty high,” said Dennis Luong, general manager of the Northeast for BlocPower, a firm that finances and facilitates decarbonization for buildings. “They’re old houses, leaky, they need other upgrades and remediation to take advantage of what a heat pump can offer. … There’s asbestos, weathering, upgrading knob-and-tube wiring and electrical panels, lead paint – in Boston that’s a huge one. You can’t get a permit until you work on all those.”

And that, he said, is a real problem: “If you say I have to do 12 of these things before I can put a heat pump in, customers will say, ‘No thanks, too much work, I’ll keep burning fossil fuels.’”

BlocPower will have a chance to tackle this problem in New Hampshire over the next 15 months. Peterborough has just signed a contract for it to decarbonize 10 to 15 buildings in town – private, commercial, religious, municipal, whatever – as a pilot to help guide the town in its a goal of heating every building, public and private, without fossil fuels by 2050.

“We’re not asking people to rip out good equipment to do this. Between now and 2050, virtually every furnace and boiler in the town is going to be replaced; we want to be ready to replace them” with electric heat pumps or other non-fossil-fuel-burning alternatives, said Bob Haring-Smith, co-leader of the Peterborough Renewable Energy Planning (PREP) Team that spurred the move.

BlocPower is not an installer of heat pumps and other electrification equipment like induction stoves. They provide expertise to help building owners determine what’s needed and feasible, as well as lower-cost financing to make changes.

“We partner with local contractors as much as possible to execute the work,” said Luong. The company will be holding a contractor workshop soon. “It requires a building-by-building analysis. The advantage that BlocPower has in doing this is we have a library full of best practices – both good, and bad to be avoided – and some technology that helps us scale up quickly.”

Any building owner in Peterborough who is interested can check out the website (blocpower.io/electrify-peterborough) and apply.

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Peterborough’s effort will be watched with interest all over New Hampshire, since many places, including Concord, have net-zero and similar goals, which makes decarbonizing buildings vital.

As I’m sure you know, electrifying services that are done by consuming fossil fuels is a key component of maintaining our economy without destroying our ecosystem, partly because it’s possible to clean up electricity in a way you can’t clean up coal or oil consumption and partly because electric motors are more efficient. Depending on how you measure it, heating, cooling and operating the nation’s buildings contribute at least one-quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions.

BlocPower, which started in 2014 and claims to have completed energy projects in more than 5,000 buildings nationwide, appears to be one of the few organizations helping cities tackle the issue.

“We haven’t been able to find any other organization in this space,” said Haring-Smith.

Most notably, BlocPower has signed a deal with the city of Ithaca, N.Y., to decarbonize every building in town by 2030, which seems crazy quick as it will require replacing a lot of functioning systems. Ithaca is a little smaller than Concord and is dominated by Cornell University, so it’s not an ordinary city, but that’s still an amazing goal.

This is BlocPower’s first trial in New Hampshire, and Luong said 6,500-person Peterborough may be the smallest town it has ever worked with. It seems like a reasonable target.

Peterborough was famously the model for Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and has an upscale, funky vibe that makes it feel like a college town despite the lack of a college, although Franklin Pierce and Keene State universities aren’t too far away. A key to its personality is MacDowell, formerly the MacDowell Colony, a world-class retreat for composers, sculptors, painters and writers (including Wilder) that has helped Peterborough attract a lot of well-off people interested in the arts.

I can definitely see this town being open to environmental experimentation in a way that many New Hampshire towns aren’t. A lot of folks will be watching.

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