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Gathering asks: Could Vermont benefit from climate change?

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2016-02-22

By Mark Johnson, vtdigger.org: http://vtdigger.org/2016/02/22/gathering-asks-could-vermont-benefit-from...

RANDOLPH — Vermont is poised to benefit economically while also helping the world cope with climate change, political and policy leaders agreed Monday.

They shared ideas at a conference that drew more than 400 and was punctuated with an impassioned plea by Speaker of the House Shap Smith and a political poke by Sen. Patrick Leahy.

The purpose of the summit was to talk about ways Vermont can strengthen its “green economy” by attracting young entrepreneurs and small businesses in the clean energy and efficiency sectors. They will not only help Vermonters and local businesses save money, speakers said, but could revitalize rural communities.

Equally important, they can export their carbon reduction ideas to the rest of the world.

Among the accomplishments cited: Vermont established a utility that sells efficiency rather than kilowatts; Rutland creates more solar power per capita than any other Northeastern community; net metering programs are expanding; and an increasing number of farmers are using biodigesters to get rid of waste and create power. One report says there are 15,000 jobs in the clean energy economy.

Leahy was one of several high-profile speakers at the event put on by the Vermont Council on Rural Development and held at Vermont Technical College. The senator said he was eager to bring ideas from Vermont to Washington, where he hoped to get them funded, and to see them picked up by the rest of the world. He recalled a trip he took to Shanghai, where adults and children wore surgical masks because of heavy pollution.

“It’s not an overstatement to say the future of the world hangs in the balance. It’s really that important,” Leahy said, noting the world population was expanding each week by the equivalent of two and a half Vermonts, which has a population of about 640,000.

The challenge is daunting, he said. “Some say the problem doesn’t even exist. Baloney. You know the problem exists,” Leahy said.

“Give me the ammunition, give me the things I can brag about. And trust me, I will brag. There is some advantage to being the most senior member of the Senate — they have to listen to me,” said Leahy, who sits on the Appropriations Committee.

The first such summit last year yielded a report that included ideas for how Vermont could benefit in the climate change era. For example, the report recommends expanding Efficiency Vermont to include all fuels, not just electricity. It also suggests giving consumers one place to go to find out about energy-saving financing. The authors also encourage public policy leaders to develop a tax on carbon pollution.

Smith expressed alarm that he saw pussy willows budding this weekend. He said climate change is the most important issue the world faces. Echoing Leahy, Smith said he wanted to be able to tell his children in 30 years that he used his “power” when there was still time to help the planet.

Then, saying he was going off script, Smith launched into a full-throated plea to avoid having the fight against climate change pit environmentalists against those concerned that carbon reduction efforts will hurt the economy.

His voice rising, the usually low-key Smith said: “Let’s not engage in this false dichotomy. We know that economic justice and environmental justice can work together to make this a better planet.” Smith dropped out of the governor’s race last year but hasn’t ruled out re-entering that race or perhaps running for lieutenant governor.

Paul Costello, the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, made the same point, saying people sometimes pitted those who want to work the land against software developers, when, he said, they have a symbiotic relationship where both can benefit.

As an example of Costello’s hope that Vermont ideas can be spread worldwide, Scott Johnstone, the executive director of Vermont Energy Investment Corp., which oversees Efficiency Vermont, said he is speaking later this week at a conference in Austria and then in Detroit.

“People want to hear about this,” Johnstone said.

Leahy began his remarks by thanking Judge William Sessions, who led the group that put together the report based on last year’s summit. Then, he added, in an obvious reference to the recent controversy over the selection of a new Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia: “We need to stop politicizing the selection of judges, from the district court to the Supreme Court. Put the best man and woman you can in.” Then Leahy smiled and apologized to event organizers, saying, “I couldn’t resist.”

Later, a group of three mayors and a town manager met to discuss ideas that have worked in their communities. For example, Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon said his city is focusing on efficiency, including reducing the number of street lights, and innovation, including installing a small energy-producing turbine in the pipe that goes from the reservoir to the city’s main water facility.

“My generation doesn’t get a free pass” to not act, since it knows the dangers, said Lauzon, who questioned why the lights in the conference main room were all on and the outdoor light blocked out.

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell said his community has a successful curbside compost collection system and has made the downtown more pedestrian-friendly. At the same time, Elwell said, the local economy is trying to make the transition after losing hundreds of high-paying jobs at Vermont Yankee, the nearby nuclear power plant that stopped producing power in 2014.

Rutland Mayor Chris Louras said his city focused on energy and food system sustainability and, in conjunction with Green Mountain Power, has achieved the status of having more solar production per capita than any other community in the region.

Montpelier Mayor John Hollar described the success of a local bus initiative, as well as the diversion of a small portion of parking ticket revenue into alternative transportation, including bicycles.

Many of those at the conference, including the mayors, agreed that reducing Vermonters’ reliance on cars and making improvements to mass transit are areas with large potential. Also, they said, the other big energy use is heat loss from Vermont homes.