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U.S. Energy Secretary talks climate change at Middlebury College

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Posted on May 19, 2014 |
By Zach Despart



EnergySummit3755.jpg
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, seated between Sens. Patrick Leahy, left, and Bernie Sanders, answers a question about the use of natural gas during the Sustainable Energy Summit held at Middlebury College last Friday morning. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — The U.S. Secretary of Energy praised Vermont’s efforts in renewable energy development and defended the expansion of natural gas use at a panel at Middlebury College Friday morning.

Secretary Ernest Moniz was flanked by the state’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Peter Shumlin, as well as state business and academic leaders.

“I didn’t come here not already recognizing the innovation that’s been displayed in Vermont,” Moniz told the standing-room-only crowd at the college’s McCullough Student Center.

Shumlin and the delegation praised Moniz, a theoretical physicist and longtime professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for his public service. Moniz previously served in several science-related capacities in the Clinton Administration, culminating in a post as the Under Secretary of Energy from 1997-2001.

Leahy, the state’s affable senior senator, said that Moniz is tasked with overseeing the most complex area of federal policy and jurisdiction.

“When you became secretary, I didn’t know whether to offer you congratulations or condolences,” Leahy joked.

Leahy also urged the secretary to push for more funding for methane digesters, which harness the gas emitted by cow manure and turn it into energy.

Rep. Peter Welch listed numerous ways Vermonters are embracing and encouraging use of clean energy, including Green Mountain Power’s introduction of net metering, the construction of a biomass plant at Middlebury College and the expansion of solar panels at homes, schools and businesses across the state. Welch said that Moniz is instrumental for Vermont and the nation to continue that progress.

“I’m proud to introduce one of the key drivers of this mission,” Welch said of Moniz. “With the secretary’s help, we’re going to do more of what we’re doing well.”

Shumlin praised the public service Moniz has performed as an official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

“He is one of the most forward-thinking energy secretaries America has ever seen, because he gets climate change and gets what we have to do to get there,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin also chided that Moniz was the only cabinet official that “looked like a true Vermonter,” an undoubted reference to the secretary’s shoulder-length hair.

Moniz took the jab in good taste, and confided to the audience that his ’do had drawn comparisons to Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Old Men.”

In his remarks, the secretary stressed that climate change is a serious issue that Americans must confront immediately. He made reference to the National Climate Assessment, a White House report released last week that posited that the United States is already feeling the effects of climate change, which will only grow more severe in the future.

Moniz noted that the report came shortly after similar reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a project of the United Nations.

“They’ve all reinforced the story that many of us, probably most of us in the room, have been talking about for a long period,” Moniz told the crowd. “We need to mitigate the effects of climate change and need to adapt at the same time.”

Moniz warned that the longer humans wait to address climate change, the more difficult and expensive it will be to do so. He listed a litany of ways the climate has already changed: an increase in global temperatures by one degree Celsius over the last decade, increased precipitation in the Northeast, higher storm surges and increased temperatures across the country.

The secretary said that Vermont and the Department of Energy have had a strong relationship, and that the state is on the right track when it comes to making investments in the energy of the future.

Moniz made reference to a scene from another film, this time the 1967 hit “The Graduate,” where an overbearing family friend tells the recent graduate Benjamin Braddock that the next growth industry is plastics. Moniz said that today, the new emerging industry is in renewable energy.

“I would do a re-run of that scene with two words: clean energy.”

CHARLOTTE RESIDENT REBECCA Foster asks a question during the summit Friday morning. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MONIZ DEFENDS PIPELINE

The event began 15 minutes later than its advertised 10 o’clock start, and Sanders opened the question and answer session with the understanding that it would be brief.

In what was a surprise to no one that follows the news in Addison County, the proposed Vermont Gas Systems pipeline through the Champlain Valley was brought up for discussion.

R.J. Adler, a Middlebury graduate who now works in the solar industry in Vermont, asked the panel how Vermont straddles the divide between promoting renewable energy while supporting the expansion of natural gas, a fossil fuel.

Moniz said that the Department of Energy, much like Vermont, has embraced a strategy of promoting energy sources that are less carbon-intensive than burning coal.

“Our strategy is called ‘All of the above;’ we start with the statement to go to low carbon,” Moniz said. “With that condition, we are investing across the board in what can be technologies to advance low carbon.”

According to Environmental Protection Agency estimates, burning natural gas produces 50 percent less carbon dioxide than burning coal. Moniz said that by reducing its use of coal as an energy source by shifting to natural gas, the United States has decreased its emissions.

“We are roughly halfway to the president’s 17 percent (greenhouse gas emissions) reduction goal by 2020, and half of that has been gas substituted by coal,” Moniz said.

Moniz hinted that natural gas, which does emit harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, would become a smaller part of the nation’s energy portfolio as the use of renewable energy sources increases.

“We see gas as a bridge, in some parts of the country, and an important one,” Moniz said.

He said that natural gas, as a cheaper energy source, also is good for business.

“Today, gas is contributing to a substantial manufacturing revival,” Moniz said, adding that as a result of the expansion of natural gas, the country has seen a $100 billion investment in new manufacturing.

Large manufacturers in Addison and Rutland counties, such as Agri-Mark, Otter Creek Brewing and Omya have said they will save substantially on energy costs by switching to natural gas.

A group of activists, who later said they were mostly Middlebury College students, briefly interrupted the question and answer session by shouting for Gov. Shumlin to oppose the pipeline. They wore orange armbands with a variety of anti-pipeline slogans.

Rebecca Foster of Charlotte, an outspoken pipeline opponent who has penned letters to state media organizations, was the last to speak.

“How can you stand and be proud of being from a green state when we are proposing to make a natural gas, fracked pipeline to International Paper, that will make us just as regressive as all the other states in the country?” Foster asked of the panel. “If you’re concerned with reducing greenhouse gases, you should be speaking out against the pipeline.”

The question, like the other about the Vermont Gas pipeline project, drew applause from many in the crowd.

“I think the state has the capability of answering that question,” Sanders said, and brought the event to a close.

The other panelists included Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell, Middlebury College Director of Sustainability Integration Jack Berne, University of Vermont engineering professor Paul Hines, Vermont Energy Investment Corp. Executive Director Scott Johnstone and Waterbury energy expert Jamison Ervin.

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