Op-Ed: A Perfect Storm for Clean Energy Innovation

Op-Ed: A Perfect Storm for Clean Energy Innovation

By Johanna Miller, Vermont Natural Resources Council

As published in the May 16, 2010 edition of the Times Argus/Rutland Herald


How are we going to meet our energy needs, both now and far into the future? Nations, communities and individuals are pondering this question with an increasing sense of urgency.

Fortunately a perfect storm is brewing across Vermont ― one that holds promise of a new, green, clean and locally-based renewable energy future for the Green Mountain State.

Vermont’s perfect storm has three basic aspects:   

·   Energy committees have now formed in nearly 100 Vermont towns. Many are partnering with their local planning commissions to craft strong energy plans.

·   The “Property Assessed Clean Energy” program (PACE), a clean-energy financing tool, was enabled by the Legislature last year to help homeowners find capital to make significant energy efficiency and renewable energy investments. Nearly 50 Vermont communities — led in large part by community energy committees — are now seriously considering the program. 

·   The “Renewable Energy Atlas of Vermont,” a new GIS web-based tool, is now available t o help Vermonters identify, analyze and visualize existing and potential locations for renewable energy projects around the state and in their backyards. The atlas was developed by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Together these three components — the community planning process, the financing capacity, and the atlas’ inventory and analysis capabilities — could combine to set the stage for aggressive, coordinated and much-needed homegrown renewable projects. 

For many, the information provided by the nascent Renewable Energy Atlas means that Vermont’s local energy opportunities can be more fully and effectively implemented.

“It’s awesome,” said Bob McNary, Ferrisburgh’s town energy coordinator. “I think (the atlas) is going to be really useful. If people can see the projects others are doing in their community — and not necessarily on brand new $500,000 homes either, but on old housing stock — they will have the incentive and confidence they need.”

That’s just the kind of response the VSJF was seeking when it created the tool.

“For us, the answer is pretty straightforward,” said Scott Sawyer of VSJF, the atlas’ primary architect. “We can get there by transitioning away from nonrenewable energy toward renewables and by relocalizing production — whether we’re talking about energy, food, etc. Helping communities understand how they might meet their energy needs locally is why we created this tool.”

Hoping to build off the leadership growing at the local level, the VSJF targeted the atlas as a tool for Vermont’s local energy groups.

“Our hope is that town energy committees will use the atlas as a tool to imagine the possibilities of local, green energy and that they will take the information to move from good ideas to developing great on-the-ground projects,” noted Sawyer.

Many community energy committees are indeed doing that, and they are hungry for the guidance and information that the atlas can provide.

“The Planning Commission and the Energy Committee are both very interested in the atlas,” said Patrick Haller, a member of Westford’s Energy Committee and Planning Commission. “We are going to try to come up with zoning regulations that – using the Atlas – focus our efforts on regions within town where renewable energy resources are available and craft regulations within those regions that support developing those resources.”

Haller noted that more and more people are looking for ways to develop wind, solar or even micro-hydro projects in their backyards and want to know what resources or technologies are viable.

“The atlas will be a great resource for that,” said Haller. “In the case of micro hydro, if the atlas shows some great locations for hydro resources, that will precipitate the planning commission or the town energy committee to see if there’s a way to do both – protect the water resource as well as promote the use of that resource.”

Harnessing the immense information the atlas can provide is a potentially powerful strategy for propelling much-needed projects forward with care and speed.

“There is clearly a need, a desire and opportunity to produce our own renewable energy resources in Vermont,” said Brian Shupe, Energy Program Co-Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “Building off the inventory and analysis the atlas provides, and reshaping and strengthening local and regional plans to capitalize on the potential — in the best, most strategic locations — will open the doors far wider to take advantage of resources right out people’s back doors.”

“It will be very useful to help us identify where we’re going, where we need to go and where we can go,” noted Ferrisburgh’s McNary, pointing to the up-to-date information the atlas will provide as a valuable resource in the planning process.

“It gives people a sense of what’s possible,” said McNary. “And I think it will feed on itself — generate more interest, more awareness, more projects.”

That’s the theory.

And here’s the hope: The renewable energy atlas, paired with planning, offers great promise in helping communities conceptualize and implement plans for meeting their energy needs locally by tapping into their own, immediately available resources. Simultaneously, the PACE program provides the essential component of moving any clean energy investment forward — the funding.

Buoyed by the focus, leadership and spirit of Vermont’s grassroots energy committees, these components — the community planning process, the financing capacity and the atlas — could combine to create the perfect storm that ushers in an aggressive, coordinated and much-needed, homegrown, clean and green, renewable energy future for Vermont. 

Johanna Miller is Energy Program Co-Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. VNRC is a founding partner in the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network — the growing network of community energy committees in Vermont. With support from the High Meadows Fund and Block Foundation, VNRC works with communities to help strengthen their town plan. For more information about how VNRC can help your community update your plan for a clean energy future — and use the Atlas too — contact Johanna Miller at 222-2328, jmiller@vnrc.org or visit www.vnrc.org or www.vecan.net.


Renewable Energy Atlas of Vermont