Our Work

Small Town Energy Committees Prove Powerful

This article was published Aug 2, 2009 in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald – Written by JOHANNA MILLER

A powerful grassroots response is forming throughout Vermont to cut energy costs, foster more renewable energy generation and lessen the state’s contribution to global warming. The network of town energy committees is growing. Last year there were more than 50 of these mostly volunteer citizen groups across the state. Now there are almost 80.

Working with local officials, business leaders and neighbors, these groups are achieving results. They are also raising awareness about the need for greater action, moving ideas for local renewable energy generation forward and gaining credibility from the grassroots to the Legislature in conversations about how Vermont will meet its future energy needs.

As diverse and creative as the people who comprise them, Vermont’s energy committees are coming up with plans — and seeing them to fruition — for projects that meet the needs of local residents, businesses and institutions interested in saving on energy costs.

In Middlesex, for example, the local energy committee targeted one of the rural community’s biggest energy users — the local school. Together with Rumney Elementary School, the Middlesex Energy Committee organized a significant weatherization project of the 22,000-square foot building. Jump-started by a $12,000 grant from the Agency of Natural Resources, the weatherization project is anticipated to save the school between 2,000 to 2,500 gallons of fuel oil per year.

The intensive two-day project was made possible by a pioneering group of energy committee members, forward-looking local school officials, a patient group of energy professionals and a dedicated group of volunteers. Organizers coined the effort a “21st Century Barn Raising.”

“What I love about the analogy is that it was all about getting everyone out there, pulling together. Two days later we’ve accomplished something remarkable,” said energy committee member Paul Zabriskie, whose day job with EnergySmart of Vermont — an enterprise of the Central Vermont Community Action Council — positioned him as the crew leader of the project.

The Middlesex weatherization project was no small feat. Zabriskie described the two dusk-until-dawn workdays in late June.

“You’re in the attic, on your chest, in tight quarters, with nails poking your head. It’s claustrophobic, it’s hot, it’s hard work,” he said. “As a business person, if you ask someone to go up in that attic and do that work all day long, they’ll quit. But if you ask someone to go up for half an hour at a time for a few hours over the course of a couple of days, they’ll do it. So having lots of volunteers able to tackle this project lends itself to doing a better job. And the town reaps huge savings.

“The retail cost of weatherizing just one small attic would have been about $7,000. With seven attics at Rumney, a traditional weatherization project would have been a huge cost,” said Zabriskie.

At the end of the two-day project, which culminated in a community potluck, Zabriskie described a “good feeling of a job well done and a good community-building exercise.” Equally important, the town got a major capital improvement for about 25 cents on the dollar. “The town also gets a school with improved air quality, warmer classrooms and lower heating costs,” Zabriskie said.

In other towns the Manchester and Dorset energy committees are banding together to more effectively harness limited resources — including people power — to further their energy goals. The two energy committees have recently partnered with the Interfaith Council of Manchester and Dorset to provide two low-income homeowners with a comprehensive energy efficiency upgrade. Funds for this effort were provided by a Stratton Foundation grant.

“It’s a great project,” said Jim Hand, a Manchester business owner and member of the Dorset Energy Committee. “It will benefit people who might not be able to afford to make these changes — and the result will be tremendous energy, cost and carbon savings.”

As town energy committees evolve, many are looking for solutions that will have even greater effect.

One opportunity several groups are considering came out of the renewable energy bill passed this year by the Legislature. Vermont municipalities can now help local property owners finance approved efficiency and renewable energy projects by creating “clean energy assessment districts” or CEADs. This innovative financing program is being considered in rural Moretown, where the local energy group has started a conversation about CEADs with neighboring town energy committees.

“We’re looking at options for what a town can do to actually help residents significantly reduce their energy use and make the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy,” said Moretown energy group member Karen Horn. “There’s a lot of homework to do, but we’ve done the basic start-up energy committee activities. This opportunity could enable residences and businesses to undertake bigger projects, like weatherizing their home or putting solar panels on their roof — projects they might not otherwise afford on their own.”

The interests and influence of town energy committees are even reaching the highest levels of state government — establishing a symbiotic partnership for all Vermonters who want a more efficient, clean, green, renewable energy future for the state.

“Absolutely everything the Legislature is able to do is a result of coming from people, from the ground up,” says Tony Klein, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Klein also represents two districts with very active energy committees — East Montpelier and Middlesex. He explains, “Town energy committees end up being the conscience of energy issues for local towns.”

Reflecting on the successful passage of the nation’s first statewide feed-in tariff legislation, a mechanism to encourage more local, renewable energy generation, Klein notes, “I think the Legislature was a little bolder this year. And it’s the boots on the ground that helps the Legislature be more bold.”

Johanna Miller is the outreach director and energy program co-director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. VNRC is a research, education and advocacy organization and one of the founding members of the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network. Visit www.vnrc.org for more information about these issues and to get involved.