Bridgeport just won a state award for its BGreen2020 plan that will reduce the city’s energy consumption by 40 percent. New Haven is building charging stations for electric cars. West Hartford challenged students to help find ways to cut energy use in schools.

All across the state, municipalities are seizing on ways to use clean energy, cut energy costs and promote green communities. Call it the greening of the town green.

And it’s not just the goal of protecting the environment that’s behind the move toward conserving energy and reducing carbon footprints: Many officials say it’s essential as budgets becoming increasingly strained.

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Solar panels atop New Haven’s Barnard Environmental Magnet School (Connecticut Clean Energy Fund)

“It’s amazing now how many people have converted to being pro-green because it is not just the right thing to do, but because it saves money,” said West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka.

West Hartford was one of the first municipalities in the state to develop a clean energy plan. With the help of students, the town cut energy costs in its schools by 16 percent, saving $160,000. The town also installed LED lights in street lamps. It has three solar panels on town hall that it received for free through the Connecticut Clean Energy Options Program.

The program allows a community’s residents and businesses to pay a surcharge on their electric bills to support the use of clean energy. Towns are rewarded with solar panels based on the number of residents who sign up. The program has become part of a friendly competition over which community is the greenest. So far, New Haven is way ahead of the pack.

New Haven beat out West Hartford in the number of residents signing up for the Clean Energy Options Program. With 1,200 residents agreeing to pay more on their utility bill to promote clean energy, the city earned 23 kilowatts of solar arrays, which it is has installed on public buildings.

The city also has a dozen buildings–the most in the state–certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, an internationally-recognized green building certification system. And a new contract starting this month will enable the city to meet its goal of purchasing 20 percent renewable energy by 2010.

New Haven also recently opened an Office of Sustainability financed by a $1 million federal energy conservation block grant to find ways to promote green energy and cut energy costs.  It has just completed an energy audit of all municipal buildings. As part of its energy plan residents are being urged to conduct low-cost home energy audits and recycle more of their garbage now that the city has switched to a waste management plant that doesn’t require the recyclables to be sorted.

“The goal is to support energy efficiency and conservation programs in the city and residential sector. What was lacking before was a comprehensive plan so that is something my office has been tasked with,” said Christine Eppstein Tang, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability.

New Haven is also slated to be a wind power demonstration site, one of four in the state. A turbine, funded by the Clean Energy Fund, will be installed at Long Wharf to power the city’s Visitor’s Bureau. To promote cleaner transportation, New Haven also sets aside prime parking spots in its downtown area for hybrid vehicles.

Despite the initiatives, Eppstein Tang said the city has a set of unique challenges. More than two-thirds of residents rent and the city has a high population turnover rate.

“That combined with fact that renters don’t pay utility bills makes it convenient for owners to maintain the status quo,” said Eppstein Tang.

Another city that has set goals to reduce its carbon footprint is Bridgeport. In March Mayor Bill Finch issued a “greenprint” for the city which laid out details for how the city was going to save on energy costs and promote conservation programs for residents. The “greenprint”, which is expected to cost more than $1 million, covers everything from increasing recycling rates to consolidating municipal offices to an energy retrofit of the library. The plan earned the city the Governor’s 2010 Climate Change Leadership Award.

“The idea is to try to make Bridgeport the greenest city in New England or the most sustainable,” said Finch, as he was arriving at the awards ceremony this week.  “Everyone knows Bridgeport’s past reputation, and it needs improving. The feeling is if you can make Bridgeport a green city, you can make any city a green city.”

Finch said the recession had helped spur the plan.

“The financial climate is actually a benefit for us because almost everything green in the long run saves money. I don’t think I could do this without a downturn in the economy. Everyone is looking for ways to save,” said Finch.

Roger Smith, a volunteer with West Hartford’s clean energy task force and campaign director for a state advocacy group, Clean Water Action, said municipal leaders are watching each other’s initiatives closely.

“Towns are playing a game of leap frog. It’s exciting. New Haven was the first to commit to buy clean energy and one of the first to install comprehensive efficiency upgrades in their schools and others towns are working to do one better. It’s a friendly competition.  I think it’s actually exciting that towns are learning from one another,” said Smith.

Federal stimulus money is helping many cities and towns with clean energy initiatives. West Hartford purchased two energy efficient boilers with the $575,000 it received in federal funds.

One dark spot on the municipal energy efficiency front is the decision by the legislature and Gov. M Jodi Rell to take 35 percent of the money earmarked for the state’s energy conservation and load management fund to plug the state budget gap, starting in 2012. That means less money will be available for communities to help themselves and their residents conserve energy. But that doesn’t mean the greening will end.

“Towns will be scrambling to find other ways to make these projects go,” said Smith.

West Hartford Mayor Slifka said despite the concern about the fund, municipalities see energy conservation and sustainability as the smart thing to do.

“It’s the norm now,” said Slifka. “It used to be the right thing to do; now it is the smart thing to do.”

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