College of the Atlantic's Community Energy Center will help foster economic, social, and environm...College of the Atlantic's Community Energy Center will help foster economic, social, and environmental sustainability to communities across Maine. Students will lead the way on projects, as they did with the photovoltaic installation at COA's Peggy Rockefeller Farms, above.

The Community Energy Center (CEC) builds on existing sustainability and renewable energy efforts on Mount Desert Island and aims to work with residents, organizations, and business owners to research, develop, and implement innovative projects that enable people and business owners to reap the financial and social benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels. The CEC officially opens at College of the Atlantic this month with COA graduate student Andrea Russell at the helm as Program Manager.

The inaugural project of the CEC will be the Solar for Businesses and Farms (SBF) project, set to begin this summer. Funded by a $65,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program, the project will provide 30 or more local farms and businesses with solar energy assessments and in-depth information on funding mechanisms.

Sowing the seeds

COA staff, faculty, and students have been working on a number of renewable energy projects in the region over recent years, sharing education and expertise to spread the idea that sustainability is as good for the wallet as it is for the environment, according to COA Director of Energy Education and Management Dr. Anna Demeo. The launch of the CEC marks a concerted effort to bring all of these projects under one roof and ensure their continuing expansion, she said.

“We’ve sown these seeds and we’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s helped to set the tone that we’re a community that understands the economic and social benefits of doing this work,” Demeo said. “We’ve wanted to step it up for a while, and the CEC will allow us to expand our current projects and take on larger initiatives that we are poised to consider.”

COA Director of Energy Education and Management Dr. Anna Demeo.COA Director of Energy Education and Management Dr. Anna Demeo.The group will begin work this summer to appoint a community advisory board made up of local leaders and tradespeople, to help guide the center in its endeavors. CEC members look forward to expanding the center’s reach and working to help make energy efficiency and independence available to all.

“Often the biggest barrier to homeowners and businesses to doing energy efficiency projects is that they don’t know where to begin,” Demeo said. “The CEC should be seen as a resource for getting started, and in some cases how to participate in established energy programs.”

Over the past seven years, COA has been involved in community energy initiatives such as creating energy plans for area schools, performing solar analyses and energy audits of municipal buildings, installing electric vehicle charging stations, and sponsoring home energy audits and air sealing projects.

Focus on education

Much of this work has been done with the help of MDI Clean Energy Partners (MDI CEP), a local nonprofit co-founded by former COA president Steven Katona and William Osborn.

“MDI CEP have been key in helping us develop the financial mechanisms to make these projects viable in our community,” Demeo said. “After five years of partnering with them on numerous energy and efficiency projects on the island, we are happy to launch this and continue to work jointly with them on our Summer Energy Fellows program and on a number of energy initiatives.”

Summer Energy Fellows work on sustainable energy initiatives both on the COA campus and in the greater MDI community. This year’s Summer Energy Fellows are Spencer Gray and Laura Berry, both of whom are rising seniors at COA.

While MDI Clean Energy Partners has worked primarily with COA since their founding, their overall mission is to bring energy independence and education to the entire MDI community.

“Because we’re an L3C, we don’t have to maximize financial gain, and what we do is make sure that any project in which we’re involved has a strong educational component. We make sure that students are involved with the project in key ways,” Katona said. “It’s a technical process in taking one of these projects from start to finish, in all manner of permitting, engineering analysis, and electrical analysis. What we are really hoping, in addition to getting projects done, is that the people who help work on those projects are learning about all of those processes, and will be eligible to be employed by existing companies or perhaps start their own renewable energy companies.”

COA has a long history of integrating theory and action to prepare students to tackle difficult challenges that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. The college’s original and lasting mission is to offer a place-based, experiential education while also benefitting the sustainability of MDI’s population and economy.

An abundance of opportunity

“We were founded in part to be an economic driver in the community and to help stimulate the local economy,” COA president Darron Collins ’92 said. “The CEC is directly in line with both of those premises and holds much promise for both our students and local communities moving forward.”

The CEC intends to create a resource to further energy initiatives on MDI and in Hancock County while also offering data that can be replicated and scaled across the state. In addition to spurring positive change on the local level, CEC can have a wider reach by serving as a model and sharing experiences so that citizens elsewhere in the state and country may replicate successes, Demeo said.

Pairing COA’s experiential education model with local organizations and residents eager for energy independence will lead to greater levels of local sustainability and many growth opportunities for COA students, according to Demeo.

“We’re creating an abundance of learning opportunities for our students that will enable them to engage in real world energy and efficiency projects - in the community and beyond - and gain invaluable experiences while doing so,” Demeo said. “Students can learn a huge amount from our residents, our plumbers, our business owner, our electricians, and so many others, and that sort of real-world knowledge is incredible, so I think it’s a win-win for our students and our community.”

The CEC is inspired by Demeo’s work with Søren Hermansen and Malene Lundén, founders of the Samsø Energy Academy on Samsø Island, Denmark. Samsø became the world’s first 100 percent renewable energy island in 2007 through a process that included citizen participation and economic rejuvenation. Demeo, Hermansen and Lundén taught a one week course at the Energy Academy last month for students in Demeo’s Rethinking Energy class and students from Trinity Washington University. Among the participants were this year’s Summer Energy Fellows and Russell, the newly hired Program Manager of the CEC.