Interview with Co-Founder Laura Richardson
Laura Richardson co-founded the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association (NHSEA) in 2003. Since that time, NHSEA has existed as a resource to help Granite State citizens, businesses, communities, and policymakers implement sustainable, New Hampshire-based energy solutions. With gratitude and admiration, NHSEA, recently re-branded as Clean Energy NH, reflects upon our history with this interview with the organization’s founder.
Henry Herndon: Can you talk a little bit about the origins of NHSEA?
Laura Richardson: My husband, Gil, and I built our home in 2001 as an off-grid ‘as-sustainable-as-possible’, super-insulated, very energy-efficient home. We wanted people to understand that you don’t have to be an engineer to live an efficient, sustainable life. You can be a regular person. So, we designed our home to be attractive and comfortable to attract everyday people. There was no support from the state at that time, no incentives, no educational resources. As a result, we had to do a lot of research and a lot of learning ourselves. Remember, that was before the internet was really a thing.
In 2002, people started coming to visit us, to tour our home and to learn about what it meant to have a sustainable home. We’d get up to 50 people coming to our house at a time, and before long, we were hosting tours every other weekend. It was exhausting! And everyone had really deep, technical questions and we weren’t always equipped to answer them. So, in 2003 we said, “We need to turn this into an organization,” and incorporated NHSEA as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
HH: Can you talk about the role NHSEA played in New Hampshire’s nascent clean-energy community?
LR: NHSEA has always been a mix of social and technical. We hosted social events so people could get to know each other, and we hosted workshops so we could learn about more technical concepts. Our first workshop was in November 2003, and it was about solar hot water. We hosted the workshop at a winery in Lee that makes really good vodka. The winery had a brand new solar hot water system for the distillation process to cool the water before it went back into the Lamprey River, while heating the building at the same time. They let us do a vodka tasting.
At the first workshop we had about 50 people, they all paid $50, we had handouts and evaluations – it was all about educating people and getting feedback. Then we started hosting more. Photovoltaic (PV) for electricians was very popular. We had 50-60 people at those. We had workshops on biomass. We had PV 101 for homeowners. My focus was from the homeowner perspective, because there were hardly any installers at that time! The workshops eventually grew into conferences with multiple tracks and topics.
HH: Who were the other individuals, organizations, and partners that were advancing clean energy and energy efficiency alongside NHSEA?
LR: PAREI, the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative, got started in 2004 – that was Peter Adams and Sandra Jones and a handful of others. Their goal was to help local people install solar hot water, and they branched into efficiency and solar PV. They started with energy raisers and energy exchanges, neighbors teaching neighbors how to install solar. They took that model and created a toolkit so that other communities and regions could do the same, like HAREI in the Hillsborough area. They made a huge difference then, and they continue to make a huge difference now.
Around the same time, Julia Dundorf at New England Grassroots Environment Fund and Denise Blaha were working on Local Energy Solutions, trying to come up with different ways to have municipalities embrace energy efficiency and clean energy. They started rolling out the Local Energy Solutions Conference around 2008, the administration of which has since passed to Clean Energy NH. They also developed various toolkits on how to implement energy solutions with a focus on local governments and communities.
HH: What is one accomplishment you are particularly proud of?
LR: Getting the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) through the legislature with a carve-out for solar – that was the most exciting success that we had. It was really hard, there were only a handful of dedicated supporters and lots of opposition, many of whom are now supportive of solar, but at the time they were really against that concept. Our goal was to create a[n] RPS carve-out for solar that would generate funds for rebate programs and incentivize more solar adoption, but also recognize solar’s value as a resource that can be adopted by any individual, any homeowner, any business. That was the thread that connected everything. I remember I was testifying at the legislature and one Representative leaned over the table, he looked at me with these steely eyes, and he said, “There will never be 50 solar projects in NH.” It makes me smirk a little now. [In 2019 there are more than 9,000 net-metered solar PV installations in NH. – Ed.]
HH: What do you think has changed most since NHSEA’s beginnings?
LR: The prices for solar have dropped significantly. It cost $15 per watt when we bought our system. When we added to our system this year, we paid $0.65 per watt for the panels. And solar has become normalized. That was one of our big goals – that when you drive by normal houses on every-day streets you would see roofs with solar on them. That was always our dream.
(This interview has been lightly edited for continuity. – Ed.)
Henry Herndon is the Director of Local Energy Solutions for Clean Energy NH.