Energy advocates eye high renewables goal
By Jon Wolper
THE VALLEY NEWS | December 03,2012
FAIRLEE — For a group of about 300 energy officials and advocates brainstorming how to accomplish a certain state plan Saturday, adjectives reigned.
They said that Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which is meant to get the state to 90 percent renewable energy usage by 2050, was bold. It was huge. Audacious. Ambitious. Extraordinary.
So a group representing all corners of the Green Mountain State met at the Lake Morey Resort to hash out methods to accomplish the goal, which Vermont released a year ago. The 90 percent milestone served as the theme of the fifth annual Community Energy and Climate Action Conference, a daylong event that boasted 14 workshops, six roundtable discussions and a keynote speech from an economic researcher and futurist.
“It’s you who can make Vermont’s vision of a more renewable future possible,” said Liz Miller, the outgoing Vermont public service commissioner. She was followed by several dignitaries, including Chris Recchia, who will succeed her, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who said being back in Vermont is refreshing after working in what he called a “fact-free zone” in the nation’s capital.
After the initial round of speeches and coffee, the attendees split off into their choice of seven initial workshops. One, “90 Percent Renewable by 2050: Scenarios and Strategies to Meet Vermont’s Goal,” tried to tackle the day’s theme head-on.
Immediately, the difficulties came to light.
A PowerPoint presentation given by renewable energy consultant Leigh Seddon didn’t mince numbers early on when it showed that, in 2010, 92 percent of Vermont’s energy that went toward transportation was nonrenewable. Eighty-five percent of thermal energy wasn’t, either, nor was 70 percent of electrical energy.
“We’re starting from a place of being 90 percent nonrenewable,” Seddon said. “So that’s a challenge.”
The best course of action, according to Seddon and other attendees throughout the day, was collaboration on the state, regional and local level. The spirits of the conference were high; the goal, to those at the resort yesterday, was challenging but not insurmountable. “We have the vision, we have the capability and we’re going to make it happen,” Recchia said.
Seddon said that Vermont’s size — it’s as much a large community as it is a small state — is an asset in accomplishing this goal. Right now, there are people working on localized, small-scale projects, he said. All it takes to succeed are for those minds to meet. The solar farms and electric cars and beefed-up systems of transit suggested by the workshoppers would have to be funded by some sort of public-private partnership, Seddon said, but that can be done.
Not that steps aren’t already being taken. Early in the day, the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network, which puts on the conference, gave out three awards, two of which went to Upper Valley recipients.
“Our town is really proud of this award,” said Ed Wendell of Bradford’s energy committee, which won the best overall energy committee award for organizing and sponsoring renewable energy-based events, among other activities. “We worked really hard for it, too.”
Soon after, Martha McDaniel, a member of the Hartford Energy Commission, stood at the lectern. Along with Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg, she had won the individual energy leadership award, notably for the town’s recent streetlight inventory and re-fixturing project, which lowered the town’s lighting bill by more than 60 percent.
According to September data from the Renewable Energy Atlas of Vermont, Windsor County ranked fifth of 14 counties in renewable energy capacity, anchored by a large amount of hydroelectric power. Orange County ranked 13th.
The day’s keynote speaker, Chris Martenson, said the narrative needs to be altered for people to give more credence to the very real issues on the horizon, such as declining oil production. Advocates need to apply weight to issues that hit the average citizen more closely, Martenson said. Issues should be concrete, not statistical. They should be confirmed by people’s daily experience.
“To get to 90 by 2050 is an extraordinary shifting of the status quo,” he said. “Think more carefully about how you say things than what you say.”
After his speech, Johanna Miller took the lectern and told those finishing their dessert to try to bring a friend for next year’s conference, preferably someone who doesn’t yet subscribe to the idea that the goal is feasible. Though they didn’t show up in any force Saturday, they exist.
“No, it is not possible by 2050,” wrote Meredith Angwin, a physical chemist, in an email. Angwin is the director of the Energy Education Project at the Ethan Allen Institute and leads discussion programs on energy at the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth.
“It may never be possible,” she said.
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com.