Saturday November 24, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Inspired by successful ventures in Austria and Canada, a group of business owners and experts is looking to make southeastern Vermont "a vibrant center for sustainable energy."

The public is invited to a Monday kickoff event in Brattleboro for the newly established Sustainable Energy Outreach Network, which aims to connect people and promote resources related to renewable and efficient energy.

In addition to encouraging "green" building and buying, organizers believe such connections can stimulate the local economy.

"What this kind of network can do is help people get together and realize that we’re way better off together than we are apart," said Gary Goodemote, owner of Friends of the Sun in Brattleboro.

The kickoff gathering is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at the River Garden on Main Street. The featured speaker will be Alex Wilson, founder of BuildingGreen Inc.

"It’s about letting people know what we’re doing," said Guy Payne, the network’s executive director. "It’s a very different model."

The idea for a Brattleboro-based network, also called SEON, has roots in a conference several years ago in Burlington. Goodemote attended and heard a presentation from an Austrian organization focused on energy issues.

Local organizers also are basing their model on an Ontario-based group called SWITCH, which bills itself as a "network of businesses, research and educational institutions, public sector participants and community-minded volunteers" dedicated to sustainable energy.


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Payne and Jonathan Morse, co-owner of Mindel and Morse Builders LLC, attended a SWITCH conference earlier this year.

"We came away just very impressed with the diversity of people involved and the level of people involved -- their energy and enthusiasm," Payne said.

So SEON was born, with organizers focusing on private-sector participation.

"We started talking to a number of businesses in the area," Payne said. "We really felt that, to get this going, it needed to be business-driven. People needed to have skin in the game."

The list of charter members is diverse. That’s by necessity, Payne said, because energy "cuts across so many sectors":

-- Peter Carvell, commercial loan officer at Brattleboro Savings & Loan.

-- Russell Chapman, outside sales, Leader Home Center.

-- Dave Gauthier, division president, Vantem Panels.

-- Joshua Hilsdon, sales, SOVEREN.

-- Steve Mindel, co-owner, Mindel and Morse Builders LLC.

-- Robert Simeon, construction trades instructor, Windham Regional Career Center.

-- Jim Williams, owner, Williams and Frehsee Inc.

-- Peter Yost, principal, BuildingGreen Inc.

Also on the list are Goodemote and Morse, with Payne at the helm of the network.

"This is a different model of economic development than we’re used to," Payne said. "It’s looking at the interdependence and interrelationship of all sectors. It includes collaboration. It includes sharing of information, even among competitors."

He and others involved with SEON contend there’s a lack of such sharing at this point. They also say the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency sectors have not grown enough to meet the state’s goals or to become a "job-producing engine" for this area.

Their goals -- in addition to increasing the number of energy projects and energy-efficient buildings -- include attracting and retaining young talent, advancing professional development and promoting southeastern Vermont as an "innovative leader" for energy.

They’re proposing four ways to get closer to those goals:

* Providing "productive networking opportunities" to share news and information about sustainable energy.

Morse noted that one such group already has sprung up after contractors attended a recent course on building design.

"We now have a monthly meeting of contractors where people bring problems or issues," he said.

* Maintaining an information database for sustainable-energy contacts and activities.

One potential use, Payne said, could be linking customers with "green builders" in the area.

Goodemote said there’s a need for such a resource.

"We get an awful lot of people who want to know, ‘Who do I call?’" he said. "You can go online and find people, but this is a much more personal approach."

* Supporting education and employment.

The idea is to bring "new funding options to research, programming to schools, continuing education and apprenticeships to businesses," organizers said.

Morse said he hopes to attract more educational partners when Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College move into Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro.

* The network also will work with towns, regional planning commissions and other groups. And members want to develop a "strategy for consumer decision-making" to make sustainable-energy choices easier for customers.

"Ultimately, it will be the public -- the consumer -- who drives this activity," Payne said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.