Our Work

Planning: A Powerful Climate Action

Article published Nov 9, 2008 in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald

By Johanna Miller – Vermont Natural Resources Council

The last several months thousands of Vermonters have been gearing up to stave off the cold and minimize the daunting costs of heating their homes this winter. The more than 50 Button Up weatherization workshops that communities and energy committees hosted around the state in October dramatically show some of the urgency people are feeling regarding energy.

The Button Up workshops and other initiatives will help save energy and money this winter and beyond. But as more and more communities are realizing, it’s the “beyond” part of the picture that offers the greatest opportunity.

“Communities need short-term projects to address rising fuel prices,” says Paul Cameron, Brattleboro Climate Protection’s executive director and town energy coordinator. “We need to give people the information and tools they need to reduce their heating bills now, but we also need a long-term vision.”

For energy experts like Cameron, town and regional plans serve as an ideal vehicle for developing and implementing that vision.

“Most Vermont communities and regions have chosen to adopt town and regional plans that guide development and public investments,” explains Brian Shupe, a planner with the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “Only in the past 20 years, however, have those towns and regions been required to include an energy element. It’s this component that offers Vermont communities a powerful, and largely untapped, opportunity to plan for an energy-constrained world.”

Planners like Shupe, energy experts like Cameron, and many others are turning to town plans to help shape a world that shifts our dependency on nonrenewable fossil fuels to development and investments that prioritize efficiency, conservation, renewables and alternative transportation.

“Planning is important for setting the long-term vision of where you want to be in 10 years,” notes Cameron. “And the energy element is especially important as a blueprint for getting there.”

Brattleboro is quite familiar with the process — and progress — involved in developing visionary plans. The southeastern Vermont city developed a Climate Action Plan in 2003, which laid out several scenarios — some big, some small — for how the community would meet its energy needs and reduce its carbon footprint.

One of Brattleboro’s more ambitious plans is to build a combined heat and power district energy system powered by locally produced biomass to heat and electrify Brattleboro’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods. While more communities are looking to draw heat from centralized power systems, Brattleboro could be the first in the nation for a community of its size to make it a reality. In short, Brattleboro might realize the benefits of such a system — an affordable, energy-efficient and reliable heat and power source — more quickly than most communities, in part, because the community planned to make it happen.

Cameron notes that the community has implemented or expanded on about half of the 35 measures in their climate action plan. “But with the district energy initiative, we took it to another level to help achieve the deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are necessary — 80 percent by 2050. That means thinking outside the box and implementing innovative technologies that will achieve it.”

Cameron also noted that one of the critical elements that allowed the community to reach this exciting stage was the support of a diverse set of stakeholders. “We’ve been lucky to have some good allies,” said Cameron. “I’m not sure we could’ve done anything without the town’s visionary leadership. The support of the Select Board, town manager and planning director makes a big difference in a project like this.”

More and more communities are realizing that planning is a powerful tool for combating Vermont’s energy and climate change challenges. They are recognizing how central the role of energy is in designing our transportation networks, food systems, buildings and communities. And they are beginning to get their communities to respond to the high-priced and dwindling fuel supplies by planning for and developing systems that use less energy.

It’s the law

Vermont’s planning statute (Title 24, Chapter 117) offers guidance to communities on conservation, efficiency, and green generation opportunities because it requires — for those communities who choose to develop a plan — that the plan include:

“an analysis of energy resources, needs, scarcities, costs and problems within the municipality, a statement of policy on the conservation of energy, including programs, such as thermal integrity standards for buildings, to implement that policy, a statement of policy on the development of renewable energy resources, a statement of policy on patterns and densities of land use likely to result in conservation of energy.”

Earlier this year, the Waterbury Planning Commission tapped the town’s energy committee — the Local Energy Action Partnership (LEAP) — to make recommendations on the transportation, land use and energy elements of Waterbury’s plan. The committee jumped on the opportunity.

“Though it’s not a binding document, the town plan is the backbone of all the steps a community can take towards achieving its desired goals,” comments LEAP committee co-chairman Keith Thompson. “Our goals are to help Waterbury take advantage of alternative energy opportunities, reduce energy consumption, develop pedestrian and bike friendly town centers and more. The town plan plays an important role in helping to meet our short, medium and long-term objectives.”

Thompson also noted that the plan is a vision statement for the community. “As people shift in and out of positions at the municipal level — they move away, have a baby, retire — those who replace them have a document they can revisit to ensure the town is moving in the direction local citizens have voiced. It helps communities withstand short-term shifts to ensure that longer-term visions are realized,” he continues.

Thompson describes how the energy committee and local officials see the town plan helping to achieve one of their primary goals, which is to ‘support traditional land use patterns’ emphasizing growth center development as opposed to suburban and residential sprawl. He notes that the town plan might help them protect important cultural and natural resources today and into the future, such as working landscapes where farms can grow local foods, forests that can produce wood and energy products as well as provide for recreation and wildlife.

“It’s great that the town is asking us to provide energy considerations in the town plan,” Thompson says. “Our feedback is only as valuable as the level of support from other stakeholders in the community who have the expertise and the ability to implement this vision. As Waterbury LEAP, we might help to light a fire or bring awareness to these issues, but steps that will really make a difference are the tangible changes made by individuals and the municipality,” he concludes.

Johanna Miller is the outreach director and energy program co-director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. As a partner in the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network, VNRC works to start and support the work of town energy committees across Vermont.

To find out if your community has a town energy committee or to launch one in your town (with support from VECAN), contact Johanna at 223-2328 or jmiller@vnrc.org or visit http://www.vnrc.org/energy/.

To help your community harness the power of a strong town plan, contact Brian Shupe at VNRC for ideas and potential technical support – bshupe@vnrc.org or 802-223-2328 ext. 114. FInd more information about energy planning and VNRC might help here.