A group of town residents, calling themselves the COOL Committee, aims to change the global climate, even if it means doing so one light bulb at a time. The COOL — standing for "CO2 Lowering" — Committee began in 2001 with the work of two Williamstown residents, Nancy Nylen and Hank Art, at a time when most people believed their actions had little to do with the greater environment. Nylen and Art urged the Board of Selectmen to take action to make Williamstown a member of the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, sponsored by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.
In doing so, the town then needed to come up with an action plan to reduce the town's carbon dioxide emissions to 10 percent below the 2000 level by 2010. The COOL Committee came up with a plan and is in the process of implementing it.
In 2001, climate change was not even on most people's radar screen, said committee members. Now, thanks to national attention, rising gas and electric costs, and the work of a few Williamstown residents, the town is becoming a leader in environmental change.
In May, town residents overwhelmingly supported a resolution on the town warrant, pledging to take the COOL Challenge to lower household carbon emission.
The citizens' committee began by undertaking an inventory of the town's greenhouse gas emissions, a study which was completed in 2002 and found that Williamstown released 116,117 tons of carbon dioxide in 2000. The following year, the committee completed its action plan to reduce that figure.
One of the first initiatives the group undertook was a writing campaign, urging people to use compact florescent lighting as a means of saving energy. With the help of a grant, the committee, working with Aubuchon stores, was able to provide free light bulbs to interested residents.
But last fall, the COOL Committee launched its biggest campaign so far — the COOL Challenge — urging all Williamstown residents to inventory their own energy use and take steps to reduce it.
"It has been a little tough getting off the ground," said committee Chairwoman Wendy Penner. "It is about educating people and empowering people. It is a first step."
Committee members are advertising the challenge by word of mouth, and meetings at workplaces and local hangouts. A summer intern is in the process of developing a series of slides which will be presented at local movie theaters prior to shows.
The COOL Challenge is simple: Calculate your energy use and reduce it.
Through the COOL Committee's Web site, www.coolwilliamstown.org, residents can navigate to the New Hampshire Carbon Challenge site, which has a calculator to help residents figure out their energy use, using basic electric and gas statements.
The site then provides suggestions for lowering energy use and, therefore, costs.
"People can make changes, and those changes can lead to much bigger changes than they can even imagine," Penner said. "This issue is only going to be resolved by thinking globally and acting locally."
This spring, every member of the Williamstown Board of Selectmen accepted the challenge and pledged to lose 5,000 pounds of carbon emissions each.
And while Selectwoman Jane Allen has been a member of the COOL Committee since the beginning, she put off taking the challenge until just recently.
Pleasantly surprised, Allen found that her carbon footprint was already quite low, but has still taken steps to lower it further by walking and bicycling as much as she can. Each morning, she takes her grandchildren to summer camp by bicycle, she said.
"That has been a way of life for me forever," she said, explaining that her family had only one car, often needed by her husband for his commute to work.
She also bought a new clothes dryer and a new humidifier for energy savings. Allen is also planning, after taking the COOL Challenge, to start composting her waste.
"I don't know if I've lost 5,000 pounds, but it is a start," Allen said. "What is neat about the COOL Challenge is that it gives you options, and you decide what you want to do."
The COOL Committee hopes to encourage at least 60 percent of the town to take the challenge. So far, between 30 and 40 households have done so.
Still, Williamstown is in second place in the number of participating residents in the New Hampshire Carbon Challenge, which after Williamstown's lead is now open to all New England towns. The Web site boasted a loss of more than 3 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions by all participating towns to date.
"There are so many things that people can do to cut energy costs, but no one has to do it all," said Penner. Penner herself is trying to drive less, but still carts her children to dance classes in a minivan, rather than a more energy-efficient car, she said.
She cuts her own carbon footprint by keeping her vehicle well-tuned and carpooling when possible. The Penners use less air conditioning in the summer and turn the heat down in the winter, and they buy products in bulk to reduce waste. She also buys reusable water bottles rather than bottled water, which she says puts a stress on the environment at every level — from straining the water source, to creating the plastic bottles, to shipping the bottles across the country for distribution.
"I definitely feel like there's a lot more I can do," Penner said, adding "You don't have to do everything. Do what you can.
"I just really encourage people to educate themselves about this issue, if they haven't already. It is essential that we all do what we can."
The COOL Committee has also been encouraging residents to sign up for Green Energy, paying a small premium on their electric bill in support of local renewable energy programs.
Money from that program has already been used to put solar panels on the Williamstown library, at no additional cost to the taxpayers. Williamstown currently has a clean energy fund of approximately $33,000 in reserve for future projects.
In the committee's newest initiative, local businesses will be recognized for their efforts to lower their energy use.
The business recognition program grew out of a study by Williams College students in the fall of 2006. Until that time, the COOL Committee had been working mostly with residents, Nylen said.
The committee is now focusing on businesses along Spring Street.
"Many are interested in energy conservation and they are concerned about energy costs, but they are lacking time to research options or they do not know about existing programs," Nylen said.
For example, attorney Bruce Grinnell recently changed all of the lighting in his Spring Street law firm from incandescent lighting to compact florescent, after an energy audit by National Grid, and found that the electric company paid 70 percent of the costs, Nylen said.
Grinnell's share of the bill, $900, was recouped in his first six months of energy savings, she said, pointing out that he saved almost $2,000 on his electric bill in the first year after the change.
The COOL Committee has been helping provide information for businesses about energy conservation and will be recognizing businesses who participate with a decal in the window, Nylen said.
To become a COOL business, the business must undergo an energy audit by National Grid or Berkshire Gas, both of whom will make recommendations on how the business owner can cut emissions and energy costs.
The business owner must then take at least one step toward achieving that goal before receiving a window decal identifying it as a "COOL Business," Nylen said. The committee is then further challenging businesses to become a "COOL Business Partner," meaning the owners pledge to cut carbon emissions by at least 10 percent by 2010. If they achieve that goal, they will become a "COOL Business Leader," which will be recognized with a plaque to be displayed in the business.
Many business owners are interested in cutting their energy costs, which goes hand in hand with cutting energy use, she said. Some simple steps businesses can take are to install programmable thermostats to regulate temperatures, Nylen said. Several business owners are also looking at the possibility of installing solar lights in their parking lots, she added.
"It is a little daunting sometimes because it seems like we have a long way to go, but it's been very positive," Nylen said. "Every little step does make a difference.
"We have a chance to change the direction of our climate," Nylen continued. "We all have a role."