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Communities lead in climate economy effort

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2016-02-24

By Andy Clark, Times Argus: http://www.timesargus.com/article/20160224/NEWS01/160229839

RANDOLPH — Vermont’s climate economy is a pace-setter for the nation, in large part because of work being done in many communities across the state.

Vermont ranks second in the nation in number of jobs per capita in the developing labor-intensive solar power industry.

Up to a quarter of the attendees at the Vermont Climate Economy Summit on Monday had a smaller set of concerns on their minds — namely how communities in Vermont are doing in transforming power use and thereby stemming the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?

Organizers planned for those concerns — in part by asking key mayors and city managers to make presentations, and by enabling interested attendees to start ongoing discussions about community practices that will keep Vermont among states leading the way for the foreseeable future.

The daylong conference was held at the Vermont Technical Center in Randolph.

Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, addressed the difficulty of the task ahead for all summit concerns. “We know when a big problem faces you. You have two options — deny it or take it on.” He advised against looking to Washington for leadership. “It’s within our state.”

He also said, “To our legislators and communities — don’t let fear head off the movement. We can take concrete steps to have a stronger environment than when we left it.”

Several mayors and city managers spoke to the challenges facing municipalities and their responses.

Mayor Chris Louras of Rutland said reducing sprawl, growing downtown and increasing energy sustainability are three goals that Rutland has adopted. Two events — including winds of 80 mph to 90 mph that knocked out 99 percent of the city’s power grid in 2007 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 — have also forced a focus on adaptation and resilience.

Louras said the merger between Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service resulted in focused efforts to bring energy innovation jobs to Rutland. The city is a workbench to demonstrate growing jobs associated with alternative energy and transformed itself while rebuilding the local economy, he added. As for downtown, Rutland now enjoys a 95 percent commercial occupancy rate.

Green Mountain Power has a micro-grid 2-megawatt solar facility — the first in the nation coupled with a large scale battery storage facility, ready in event of an emergency.

This week, Louras said, GMP and Casella Waste Management are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding to establish a wastewater treatment plant pilot project — to use methane generated from wastewater cake and food waste composting as the power source for energy needs of the waste treatment plant.

Future challenges include the scale of needed replacements of the city’s stormwater, wastewater and water supply systems; a program to address landlord and tenant heating issues; and a need for a residential solar and battery storage program.

Mayor John Hollar of Montpelier said his city has a net zero emissions goal by 2030. The goal and its urgency resulted in the creation of a wood chip biomass facility to heat downtown. Much of the energy consumed by state office buildings is supplied by the facility. He said it has a huge impact on fossil fuel consumption in the city.

He said 5 percent of city parking revenues are dedicated to renewable energy projects. They’re working on incentives to reduce auto traffic to the central city, including alternative infrastructure like bike and pedestrian paths, a transportation facility for those without cars, solar generating capacity and car-share programs.

Hollar said the mayors of Vermont meet regularly as part of a coalition. A funding stream could enable cities to become carbon neutral, such as sharing four to five technical assistance positions statewide.

“We can’t get there with just voluntary efforts,” he said.

Barre’s Mayor Thomas Lauzon said innovative questioning has resulted in changed lighting in council chambers and LEDs in city streets. Younger generations see the world through best practices — a historic change for city management. After years of flood incidents and fires, infrastructure renewal has restored downtown Barre.

The city is looking for ways to accommodate mass transit, and downsizing police cars from “Chevy Blazers to Ford Focuses, in a three-square-mile city,” He’s also looking to partnerships with Efficiency Vermont to help the city with issues like shutting off the water system when needed, such as in a flood. Through private efforts, Barre has expanding ridership transit connections with Burlington and Waterbury.

The future for Barre includes an association with Norwich University, a resource that may enable accomplishing future energy initiatives.

Other communities spoke to their challenges and legacies.

Weybridge, just outside of Middlebury, led the way in encouraging residents to insulate their homes by 2013 as a part of Efficiency Vermont’s Home Energy Challenge.

Today Weybridge volunteers are turning their attention to reducing auto emissions through car pooling, park and ride initiatives and pedestrian and bike amenities like paths and sidewalks, said Fran Putnam, chair of the Weybridge Energy Committee.

Those interested in tying into future discussions over community efforts to improve the climate economy should do so through the website www.vtrural.org.