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In New Berlin, Energy Independence Means a Closer-Knit Community

Juli Finkbiner's in her kitchen and glances at the door leading into the garage. She doesn't like what she sees through the window.

She turns off the lights in the empty garage.

"Here's a nickel," she says.

That is, leaving the lights on in the garage costs her family five cents an hour. A device connected to the family computer shows, in real time, how much electricity the house is using. The monitor, called The Energy Detective, also displays how much power the Finkbiners use in a day and projects their monthly electric bill.

The device came free courtesy of PPL Corp. The utility powers a large swath of Pennsylvania, including the Finkbiners' home in New Berlin, Union County. As part of the deregulation of Pennsylvania's electricity suppliers, caps on PPL's price for power expired last year and customers' bills went up.

New Berlin, a close-knit town of an estimated 812 people in rural central Pennsylvania, is conducting a trial to see how much energy one Appalachian community can save and, eventually, generate itself.

The experiment has a bold name: the New Berlin Energy Independence Project.

A Community-Based Approach
Its first goal is instilling energy-saving habits throughout New Berlin. The second is finding a local energy source.

"We want to see what happens when we move from an individual focus to a community focus," says Megan Epler of the Energy Resource Center at SEDA-Council of Governments, a regional development organization.

SEDA-COG was inspired by the northern California town of Willits, where residents have spent the last six years planning how to survive once the world runs out of oil. Epler's office wanted to adapt that idea to central PA and thought New Berlin would be the perfect place. The town has a sense of community pride and has a lot going on for its small size. Two schools, three manufacturing facilities, two banks, a bed and breakfast, and a volunteer fire company are packed into less than half a square mile.

The three-year project launched in October 2009. Its service area includes New Berlin and part of neighboring Limestone Township.

The New Berlin initiative is meant to create a model for other Appalachian communities. "We won't be successful if we can't replicate this," says Neil Fowler, director of the Appalachian Development Center, which oversees funding to Pennsylvania from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

For the first step, organizers ordered a community-wide energy audit. Much of its data came from surveys organizers passed out door-to-door, asking questions like how they heat their homes (coal and oil mostly) and how much they drive (37 miles a day on average). A remarkable 87 percent of residents filled out the surveys that were passed out in the winter of 2009.

The results, completed in May, estimated that the New Berlin area goes through 175,000 gallons of heating oil, 131,600 gallons of propane and 104 tons of coal in a year. "I would love to see a town that uses a whole lot less oil and coal," says Tammy Tobin, who lives in the center of New Berlin and serves on the project committee.

Participation in the project is voluntary. The goal is to get everyone in New Berlin involved and organizers say it's taken a while to catch on.

Still, more than 150 people crowded an October expo of solar-panel installers, insulation contractors and others who make buildings more energy efficient. PPL offered free home surveys so residents could find out how to fix their houses. Tobin took PPL up on this and learned her attic wasn't as well insulated as she thought. Plus she got power strips, compact fluorescent light bulbs and other free goodies.

"This house uses oil for its heat," Tobin says. "That's not a particularly renewable resource, so anything that I can do to use less is really important to me."

Empowered on their Own
Anticipating higher electric bills, the SUN Area Technical Institute on the edge of town planned its own modifications before the community project began. It saved an estimated $29,000 in 10 months by making improvements like switching from an electric boiler to one powered by propane and sealing and insulating a gap near the ceiling.

"It used to always feel cold in the office," says SUN Tech's administrative director, Dennis Hain. "It's much better now."

Green energy is also a big part of the curriculum, given the school's mission of training high school seniors for in-demand jobs. Masonry students build with insulated concrete forms that keep buildings airtight. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning students are learning about solar and geothermal power. A wind turbine is in one classroom, and the school's planning to have students design and install two more.

SUN Tech students will also help weatherize buildings based on recommendations from State College contractor Envinity. The company conducted energy audits on 11 buildings including churches, the elementary school and the fire company. Energy Projects Manager Jason Grottini says New Berlin Elementary could save with a new heating system instead of its current boiler, which is more powerful than necessary. Churches could install water heaters that only come on when someone is in the building.

Like any community, Grottini says New Berlin can use less energy by making adjustments that quickly add up.

Epler stresses that no one's asked to shell out hundreds of dollars for home improvements or keep their thermostats uncomfortably low. Project organizers are looking for small changes, like using efficient light bulbs and turning off idle computers. People can put that savings toward efficient appliances.

"The goal isn't to say we should all be a little colder," Epler says. "Caulk your windows where there are drafts."

Motivations and Opportunity
PPL's desire to see New Berlin use less electricity has some selfish motivations. The 2008 state mandate Act 129 says that by June, utilities must reduce consumption by 1 percent. A 3 percent reduction is required by June 2013. Failing to do this could mean a $20 million fine.

To put that in perspective, PPL spokesman Don Stringfellow says a 3 percent reduction is equal to cutting off every home from electricity for a month.

Fortunately, PPL expects to meet this year's mandate. That's possible because it has taken measures like distributing efficient light bulbs, taking away customers' aging appliances for recycling and giving customers money toward new refrigerators.

Finkbiner, president of New Berlin's borough council, says she's always been the "light police" at her house. More than that, she'd rather use less electricity on her own than to have PPL force her hand. (Stringfellow says developing technology could allow utilities to remotely turn off water heaters and other devices, but that's not available now).

She and New Berlin's mayor, Craig Egli, say the energy-monitoring devices at their houses have provided extra motivation for their families to use less electricity. For one thing, Egli uses his wood-burning cookstove as much as he can.

He sees more potential for the New Berlin project, though. Perhaps it could develop into a community gardening venture or a town-wide carpool arrangement, he says.

The ultimate goal is to tap the natural resources around New Berlin solar or biomass, perhaps to generate power locally. Chemical engineering students at nearby Bucknell University researched possible sources, including plant material and animal waste.

"It would just be so cool to see a community project that gives back to the grid," Finkbiner says.

Rebecca VanderMeulen is a freelance writer who lives near Downingtown. As she tells friends out of state, that's between the cheesesteaks and the Amish. Send feedback here.

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Megan Epler, the SEDA-COG Project Manager for the New Berlin Energy Independence program, outside the Community Center where project meetings are held.

SUN-Tech's School Senior Administrator Dennis Hain stands next to the newly installed energy efficient boilers and chiller.

The Mayor of New Berlin, Craig Egli, checks his electricity use with a PPL-issued monitor, foreground, and also online with his home computer

Dennis Hain, left and Maintenance Manager Ron Mapes, right, stand next to the newly installed energy efficient boilers and chillers.  SUN-Tech is using its new heating and cooling apparatus to knock down their energy bills in 2010

New Berlin as seen from a nearby bluff.

The PPL bucket truck services local residences on Main Street.

All Photographs by BRAD BOWER

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