Making a Difference: Retired Physician Helps a Local Community Go Solar
By Mark Aiken
In retirement, Norm Levy figured out a way to make a difference in his community. “I was interested in energy efficiency,” says the retired laboratory physician who for 22 years specialized in diagnosing blood diseases at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. “And my focus was on helping lower-income populations.” Many of his colleagues stay connected with medicine even in retirement. Norm, however, felt that he didn’t want to continue in this field. Admittedly, he didn’t know much about energy or solar, but he started by joining the Norwich Energy Committee— a municipal committee filled with volunteers. “We have a variety of backgrounds,” he says, including members with administration, government, and political experience. And there are some like Norm who come from other employment backgrounds.
STARTING WITH THE BASICS
One of the first things Norm learned about through the committee—and his warmup act—was LED light bulbs. An LED bulb costs two dollars and can save a household 12 dollars per year per bulb. “That was low-hanging fruit,” says Norm, who, with the Norwich Energy Committee, combined charitable donations and small grants from the Norwich Women’s Club and the New England Grass Roots Environment Fund to ultimately purchase over 3,000 bulbs. The bulbs were distributed at no charge to nonprofits serving low-income populations, individuals, and businesses, including many that he distributed at booths at the local dump and the general store in order to raise awareness. He doesn’t claim responsibility for the idea (or for any subsequent ideas). “Is there really such thing as an ‘original’ idea?” he asks, noting that Efficiency Vermont and other nonprofits have plenty of original programs and practices.
As he continued on the Norwich Energy Committee, Norm continued to learn—and he continued to watch for ways to make a difference. He learned about solar arrays and tax laws set up to encourage people to make the switch to clean solar power. He learned about net metering, whereby the owner of an array sells energy to a power company for credits. He learned that, while a private owner may be eligible for certain refunds, tax laws make the return on investment much quicker and more advantageous for a third-party investor. Finally, Norm learned about a housing trust (Twin Pines Housing) that had built a small neighborhood of low-income homes on Starlake Lane in Norwich. Norm saw his opportunity.
AN IDEA TAKES SHAPE
Partnering with Twin Pines and Norwich Solar, a business that finances, builds, installs, and maintains solar projects, Norm set out to build a solar array that would provide power at a discount to the 14 homes on Starlake Lane. Norm financed the project. Troy McBride, cofounder of Norwich Solar, explained to Norm that he could cover his investment in just five years. Because his goal was to benefit the residents of the low-income neighborhood, Norm offered them a deeper discount, meaning his return on investment will take seven years. “The hardest part was explaining to the residents that it was a good deal for them,” Norm says.
“They kept asking, ‘What’s the catch?’” “Our purpose in life is to make the world a better place,” he says, “to extend benefits to those who are usually last in line. I had an impact on my local community, and that feels great.” This is not to say that the project was easy. There were plenty of hurdles—legal red tape, permitting, lawyers, contracts, and applications. Which is where Troy and Norwich Solar came in. “A percentage of our business is net metering agreements,” says Troy.