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Energy Corps Takes Root in Montana, Seeks to Make America Greener

May 14, 2010 - 11:54am

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For the last 17 years, AmeriCorps members have pledged to uphold their duties as public servants, vowing to "get things done for America—to make our people safer, smarter and healthier.” But a new type of volunteering in Montana is adding one more thing to that list: making America greener.

To help address unmet community energy needs, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) established the Energy Corps program under AmeriCorps in the Big Sky state. The project, which was funded by the Montana Governor’s Office of Community Service and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, has 12 people scattered throughout the state, serving at reservations, community action agencies, nonprofit organizations and colleges.

Since October, Energy Corps members, whose backgrounds run the gamut, have been busy assisting with weatherization services for low-incomes areas, developing clean energy awareness campaigns for communities and performing community building energy audits on reservations.

AmeriCorps members have been helping clean up communities and teaching residents to be more environmentally conscious since former President Bill Clinton created the program in 1993, but distributing volunteers to areas to focus solely on energy efficiency and renewable energy is relatively new.

“Our mission is to transfer sustainable technologies and provide energy assistance to underserved populations,” says Holly Hill, NCAT’s Energy Corps program director, which chose communities in the most need of energy-efficiency assistance.

“We also saw it as an opportunity to provide green job training for the emerging green collar workforce,” she adds.

For one Energy Corps member, the program was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Taylor Lyon, 22, graduated from Carroll College in Helena, Mont., in 2009 with a biology degree, and was looking to break into the biofuels field.

He felt lucky to land a service position at the Bio Energy Center at Montana State University—Northern in Havre, Mont.

“It just brought to light the joy in volunteering. You make connections; you learn first-hand of how the jobs work,” Taylor says. “It is an easy transition into the real world after school.”

Acting as a research assistant, Taylor spends his days in the lab helping scientist Jon Soriano discover ways to make better biodiesel with oilseed crop— fuel that can run in the cold winter months. The ultimate goal of the research is to spur economic development in north central Montana with agricultural growth and find ways to make their fuels locally sustainable.

The center “takes the research from the oilseed to the exhaust,” Taylor says, which means there is leftover biodiesel for the taking after it’s studied in the lab. In line with the AmeriCorps mission, the school donates the fuel to North Central Montana Transit, the free bus service for low income communities in the Hi-Line area. Four of the seven buses run entirely on biodiesel. The rest have a 20 percent blend of biodiesel, cutting the fuel costs by the same amount.

Some volunteers are stationed at Chippewa Cree Tribe in Box Elder, Mont., helping the reservation develop an energy plan and with community outreach and education. Others are working with the community action program agency, the District IV Human Resource Development Council in Havre, to weatherize homes.

Energy Corps volunteers receive a living stipend of $1,100 a month and an educational award of $4,725 upon successful completion of service. The total number of members in the Energy Corp program could be as many as 57 by this fall, when the organization hopes to expand the program into Iowa, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, other states where NCAT operates.

Melissa Terry, the Arkansas Energy Corps coordinator for NCAT, has been in contact with several Arkansas partners that are interested in benefitting from the service of an Energy Corps member. NCAT has received similar interest from other groups in Iowa and Pennsylvania.

“We see a need for sustainable energy services across the country,” says Holly. “The Energy Corps program has been a great success in Montana and we hope we can replicate that success on a larger scale.”

The National Center for Appropriate Technology is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to improve the lives of economically disadvantaged people by helping individuals and communities adopt technologies that save energy and resources. For more information about NCAT’s Energy Corps program visit www.energycorps.org.

The Recovery Act included $200 million to create 15,000 new AmeriCorps positions, a 20 percent increase.

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