VTC Hosts Climate Talk In Randolph

Thursday, February 19, 2015
Randolph — Hundreds of Vermont policy makers, municipal planners, renewable energy installers, nonprofit managers, students and other interested members of the public flocked to the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph on Wednesday to consider the state’s response to climate change, particularly increasing solar power generation and the possibility of a tax on carbon.

During the first panel of the day, Jon Erickson, a University of Vermont professor of ecological economics, predicted the impacts of climate change on the economy would be much worse if people do not take steps to adapt.

“A healthy economic system and a healthy ecological system absolutely go hand-in-hand,” he said to the approximately 450 people gathered in Judd Hall for the summit organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Gillian Galford, a UVM earth systems scientist, said the trends toward warmer and wetter conditions are well known, but predicting specific storms is difficult. To prepare for the unknown, Galford, who led a state-wide assessment of climate change in Vermont, suggested communities focus on evaluating their vulnerabilities and managing their risks.

She said the threats to agriculture, recreation and public health are particular concerns.

For example, she said that earlier apple blossoms force the state’s growers to run their equipment earlier and they run the risk of getting stuck in the mud. Increased rain while blossoms are out may also increase the likelihood of fungus, which could diminish the quality of the fruit, she said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, during his introduction to the summit, told the crowd he has seen a variety of environmental and economic changes in Vermont due to climate change in his lifetime, including the introduction of invasive buckthorn to the state’s forests, the growing presence of ticks (some carrying Lyme disease) and the threats warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns pose to the maple and ski industries.

Shumlin said he remembers a time when the state “didn’t have snow making because you didn’t need it.”

In response to these changes and the damage to state infrastructure caused by severe weather events such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Shumlin said, residents and businesses are increasing their reliance on renewable sources of energy, particularly solar power. He said the solar sector is creating new jobs for young people who are returning to the state and driving Prii, not Cadillacs.

He referenced an Energy Innovation Program, which he proposed in his inaugural address last month and would require the state’s utilities to provide customers with 55 percent of their energy from renewable sources in 2017 and 75 percent by 2032. It would also set targets for distributed renewable energy projects, such as community-scale solar generation.

State Rep. Tony Klein, D-Montpelier, and Rep. Rebecca Ellis, D-Waterbury, have proposed a bill which would establish renewable energy targets for the state’s utilities through a Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation Program, known as the RESET. This would replace an existing program known as Vermont SPEED, which includes renewable targets and is set to expire in 2017.

State Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, and seven cosponsors have proposed a similar bill in the Senate.

During a morning panel, Alan Betts, an atmospheric researcher from Pittsford, Vt., described the need to mitigate the effects of climate change as a “fundamentally moral issue.” He compared the “immoral” economic system which is reliant on fossil fuels and threatening the planet to slavery.

As one possible solution, Betts urged a tax on carbon emissions.

“We have to move toward a thing like a carbon tax,” he said.

Erickson, the ecological economist, said he supports the idea of a carbon tax for the state and pointed to the system British Columbia has established as a potential model.

Because, he said, such a tax is fiscally responsible, fair, improves the economy and reduces carbon emissions, it is a “no-brainer.”

Shumlin has stated support for a regional carbon tax and said that it isn’t something Vermont can do alone.

Erickson also suggested rethinking capitalism to benefit a greater proportion of the population might be a part of the state’s preparation for its energy future. For example, he said, expanding the net metering program, which credits electric customers for renewable energy they produce and don’t use, might be a way to increase the number of people who benefit economically from energy production.

“It’s time for Vermont to lead, it’s a small state with a lot of muscle,” he said.

Galford said critics might question the impact changes in a small state might have on a global problem, but communities “have to take responsibility for what the future looks like.”

In a morning breakout session, a group of panelists described their communities’ efforts to install solar panels on rooftops and in yards, weatherize homes and otherwise work on energy and land use issues.

Jamie Ervin, a member of the Waterbury Energy Committee, said that despite the obstacles to solar power in Vermont, which include clouds, hills and trees, her committee was able to quadruple the number of community solar projects in Waterbury, Vt., and Duxbury, Vt.

The presence of SunCommon, a solar energy installer in Waterbury, and Green Mountain Power’s support of net metering assisted the committee, Ervin said.

But, she said, the state could further “democratize energy production” by allowing those who have a site suited to solar power production to install as many panels as they can, not just what they can use.

Fran Putnam, a retired early educator who is chairwoman of the Weybridge Energy Committee, said the birth of her first grandchild in 2007 spurred her to take steps to address climate change in her community.

“I looked at that innocent face and said, ‘What is going to happen to these children?’ ” she said.

Putnam’s committee has focused on weatherization efforts in the town of 800.

Through potlucks and word of mouth during the 2013 Vermont Home Energy Challenge, weatherization became “the cool thing to do,” Putnam said.

The town was awarded a $10,000 prize last year and has weatherized 6 percent of the town’s homes. The town used the prize money to make energy efficiency improvements to town buildings.

Putnam, who sits on the Addison County Democratic Committee, said she hopes to urge policy makers to provide money to support weatherization programs, particularly for low-income Vermonters.

“Money is the biggest barrier,” she said.

The summit launched the Vermont Climate Change Economy Council, a group of 24 which will be responsible for presenting policy recommendations to address climate change in January 2016.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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