Chestertown officials have been interested in energy conservation for a long time — they started tracking usage levels during the 1970s energy crisis.
Even so, when the Eastern Shore town launched a project to cut back on electricity costs seven years ago, the municipality cut usage by 11 percent and sliced more than $130,000 in annual expenses.
Now local leaders are hoping to expand on that success. They've launched the ShorePower Project with four other communities — Cambridge, Easton, Salisbury and Snow Hill — to help leaders in those places find ways to use energy more efficiently and with less impact on the environment.
Many of Maryland's local governments are working individually to the same effect. But the state thinks the Shore initiative is the first regional effort of its kind in Maryland.
"We're really excited about this project and its potential," said Samantha Kappalman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The ShorePower Project is funded by a $150,000 grant from the Easton-based Town Creek Foundation, which also supported the Chestertown effort.
Briggs Cunningham, energy programs manager for the Center for Environment & Society at Washington College in Chestertown, managed the first project and now is working on the new initiative. It's in the early stages — he's collecting energy data from the towns and will make recommendations on steps to take.
By joining together rather than tackling the problem separately, the towns' leaders can increase their buying power as they switch to higher-efficiency lighting, install solar panels or make other changes, Cunningham said. He'll also help them go after grants to cover some of the upfront costs.
"We can get greater economies of scale," he said. "We hope in a couple years, we'll get the whole region involved."
Easton conducted an energy audit of its Town Hall and Fire Department a few years ago and found ways to save, said Geoff Oxnam, vice president of operations for Easton Utilities, that town's municipal utility company. But by participating in the project, Easton officials will get their arms around energy use at many more buildings, he said.
The goal isn't only to cut expenses, he added.
"There's a long and very proud conservation ethic here on the Eastern Shore," he said. "People on the Eastern Shore are very tied to the environment — it means a great deal to us."
The state Department of the Environment sees in the project the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Maryland aims to cut such emissions in the state 25 percent by 2020, compared with 2006. And the environmental agency wants more local governments to take concrete steps — like using less power.
"It's showing their communities and their residents that they're committed to this type of goal and to helping address the impacts of climate change," Kappalman said.
Salisbury did a greenhouse gas emissions inventory several years ago, noted Michael Moulds, that city's director of public works. Officials there already have taken steps to save energy, too, including switching the city's parking garage to LED lighting.
They're looking forward to getting assistance with future efforts.
"There's always something more you can do," Moulds said.
Chestertown's own project, Chestertown Goes Green, included upgrading its heating and cooling systems, shopping around for lower-cost electricity and installing solar panels on the roof of the Town Hall. The town's newly elected mayor, Chris Cerino, said Chestertown also is studying whether to power its sewage treatment plant with solar.
His predecessor, Margo Bailey, kicked off the project after signing on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Washington College — which had just joined in on the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment — agreed to help.
Bill Ingersoll, town manager of Chestertown, said it makes sense for communities to home in on energy savings. But doing it together can be more feasible than going it alone.
"The little tiny towns, they need help," he said. "They don't always have a manager. They don't have a large staff."