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One NH town is trying to decarbonize their buildings – and build a workforce in the process

A person in a blue shirt holds a small stick up to a white plastic tube that is illuminated with a lightbulb and has small holes in it. He's in a classroom with a whiteboard that says "Welcome to CSA" with flowers and hearts drawn on it.
Mara Hoplamazian
Andy Duncan is the energy training coordinator at Lakes Region Community College. At a Wednesday night class in Peterborough, he teaches students about energy efficiency using demonstrations like this one, which shows how buildings leak air. 

On a chilly Wednesday night in early spring, a group of students from across New Hampshire gathered in a small classroom at the MAXT Makerspace in Peterborough to learn about energy efficiency. They passed around bags full of insulation, learned how to use an infrared camera, and huddled around an experiment designed to demonstrate how buildings lose heat through air leakage.

The class is part of a new effort run by the Peterborough Renewable Energy Project – PREP, for short.

Most people in New England heat their homes with fossil fuels. But interest in heat pumps, a super-efficient form of electric heating, is growing. Along with upgrades like adding insulation, that could contribute to a major reduction in climate-warming emissions.

The PREP team wants to install extra insulation and heat pumps in 200 buildings in Peterborough and neighboring Harrisville over the next three years, while getting at least 16 more people qualified to do energy audits, installations, and weatherization.

For David Donovan, the Wednesday night class is a bit of a refresher course. A lot of the syllabus covers work he does daily as a production manager at Turn Cycle Solutions, a company that does energy efficiency upgrades. But it’s one of three courses he needs to meet his ultimate goal: to be certified as an energy auditor.

A man stands on a ladder in a garage, holding a green tube up to a hole in the ceiling.
David Donovan
David Donovan packs insulation into the ceiling of a garage.

Donovan transitioned into the industry because he wanted the freedom and real-time fulfillment that construction work allows. Helping people save money on their energy bills was a big motivation, he said. And so was helping the climate.

“The more that we can save people and make their homes more efficiently work and operate, then at that point at least we're reducing some of the consumption of these fossil fuels,” he said. “I mean, we’ve got to save the planet, right? I’ve got kids, I want them to be around. I want them to have a planet.”

Plus, Donovan said, there’s a big need for weatherization professionals in New England. It’s a drafty place. A lot of the homes were built decades, if not centuries, ago.

“There really weren't any codes or building standards at the time,” he said. “So there are so many opportunities to improve the vast majority of the homes built in New England.”

Turn Cycle Solutions is booked straight out for about four months for weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades, according to owner Mike Turcotte. They’re relying on subcontractors to keep up with the workload.

“Today on its face, we could take another three to four installers, at a minimum,” he said. Once new federal programs funded by the Inflation Reduction Act are up and running to help residents make their homes more efficient, the company will need up to nine more people, Turcotte estimated.

On the heat pump side, Kim Bergeron, who owns an installation company near Peterborough, says he has had a relatively easy time hiring people. He says people are interested in these jobs. And it helps that his company, Bergeron Mechanical Systems, offers benefits like no-cost healthcare, free lunch, even bi-weekly massages.

But he says demand is growing fast, and so is his team.

“We installed 178 heat pump systems in 2022. We installed 300 last year. We're going to install 400 this year,” he said. “We went from six full time installers to nine full time installers. Now we have eleven.”

Bergeron says the classes PREP is organizing could help funnel stronger candidates into the industry as it balloons.

Thousands of dollars of federal money could be available to households in the coming years to help people update the way they heat their homes, an effort that will aid in the Biden administration’s goal of hitting net zero emissions by 2050.

New England’s grid operator, ISO New England, projects more than 1 million households will have heat pumps by 2032. Maine surpassed their goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps two years ahead of schedule and set a goal to install an additional 175,000 by 2027.

The town of Peterborough has its own goals – convert to 100% renewable energy by 2050, and convert to 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

“In order to be able to do this in the time that we have, we need to be training more people to do this work,” said Dori Drachman, one of the co-coordinators of Peterborough’s PREP team.

So far, the town has hired an energy and community planner, and run campaigns to get people to install solar panels.

But Drachman says in a way, that was low hanging fruit. Getting people to switch their homes off of fossil fuels is a tougher goal.

“You're kind of going into the guts of the building and needing to change things around, and that's complicated," she said.

Tim Riley is a Peterborough resident who installed a heat pump with help from the PREP team during a pilot program. He and his wife installed the heat pump because they wanted to do what they could as individuals to mitigate climate change. But the system has additional benefits, he said. “We love the system,” he said. “It’s so quiet.”
Bob Haring-Smith
Tim Riley is a Peterborough resident who installed a heat pump with help from the PREP team during a pilot program. He and his wife installed the heat pump because they wanted to do what they could as individuals to mitigate climate change. But the system has additional benefits, he said. “We love the system,” he said. “It’s so quiet.”

Drachman’s team is trying to make that transition as accessible as possible. They’re partnering with the New York based company BlocPower, which guides people through the process. It’s the first time the company has partnered with a rural community. But Monika Hansen, the director of market operations for the Eastern U.S., says the goals are the same.

“From our work in Peterborough, we've learned that the appetite for heat pumps is growing in every type of community from rural to urban,” she said.

A federal grant will help provide extra money to low or moderate income households looking to electrify in Peterborough.

It's also going to fund the workforce development classes, which will eventually include specific courses for high school students, and connect people with local apprenticeships.

Drachman says she hopes other places will make similar moves to help residents move their homes off of fossil fuels.

“Everyday people are going to have to be doing what we are helping people do with this program. They're going to be needing to do this all over the country quickly,” she said.

She said making the transition to heat pumps makes long term financial sense. And it’s not a hard pitch to her neighbors that cutting atmosphere-warming emissions is an imperative.

“It's physics,” she said. “We have to do this if we're going to be able to enjoy Peterborough for centuries to come.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.