Bikers to rally for clean energy

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College students Ben Wessel and Pier LaFarge had a lot on their minds one recent afternoon. There was finding on-campus housing, choosing classes for next semester — and, of course, coordinating a statewide campaign to get the gubernatorial candidates talking about clean energy plans.
The campaign, called Race to Replace Vermont Yankee, will hold its kickoff event this Friday, April 30 — a bike ride from Montpelier to Burlington. The event will begin with a rally on the steps of the Statehouse, followed by the bike ride and another rally (this time with food and music) in downtown Burlington.
In what Wessel and LaFarge see as a testament to Vermont’s small size and open politics, gubernatorial candidates Doug Racine, Peter Shumlin, Matt Dunne and Susan Bartlett have confirmed that they will attend the rally in Montpelier, while Deb Markowitz said she might be there. At press time, organizers had not heard back from sole Republican candidate Brian Dubie.
“I’ve met with congressmen and senators and members of the cabinet,” said Wessel, a junior Environmental Studies major. “But never before have they been like, ‘I really want to hear what you think, because I’m formulating my policy and I need help.’ What we think actually matters here.”
And the group has been drumming up enthusiasm with students from the University of Vermont, Green Mountain College, Bennington College, Marlboro College and Saint Michael’s College. Though Wessel and LaFarge don’t expect riders from the more distant institutions to show up at Friday’s rally, they are hoping to organize many more rallies in the coming months, attracting a broad base of high school and college students as the campaign builds steam in the run up to election day on Nov. 2.
“There is a lot of opportunity, and we really want to have fun doing it,” said LaFarge, a senior Environmental Studies major who will graduate next February. “It’s about being wonky.”
The Race to Replace campaign got its start in February, when the controversy over the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant first began to attract national attention. Wessel realized that people involved in climate activism all over the country were talking about Vermont.
“We weren’t involved in Vermont state politics, but we realized how much of a national scale of significance this could have, and we were like, ‘We want in on this action!’” said Wessel.
So he assembled a group of fellow climate activists to discuss, over a dining hall meal, the possibility that Vermont Yankee would be decomissioned and the need to find another source of energy for the state. Among the activists were many first-years who, he said, were eager to jump right into state politics.
Since that first meeting, the bill to decomission the nuclear plant has cleared the House, Meanwhile, the state has moved closer to election season, with gubernatorial candidates launching their campaigns.
Although momentum is gathering to decommission the plant in 2012, the group noticed that few of the candidates had come out with clear plans on how to replace the third of the state’s energy that Vermont Yankee provides. This, they decided, would be their target.
The official Race to Replace challenge to legislators is an ambitious one: to have the state running entirely — and independently — on clean energy by the year 2020. This, they say, will create jobs and develop Vermont as a national role model.
Over the months, the campaign has developed further. Now, said Wessel, the campaign has three goals: to activate young voters in the state, who tend to support clean energy; to make clean energy the primary issue in the election; and to push all of the candidates to come out with strong clean energy plans.
The two are eager for the summer, when they will be focusing on the campaign, planning rallies and traveling around the state talking to young people and legislators. Race to Replace, they said, has already gotten them off campus, meeting people in the wider Vermont community.
“Activism is a great way to reach out and start knowing people around Vermont,” said LaFarge. “This is a whole other side to being educated in Vermont — engaging with community, and talking to people who aren’t your age.”
Closer to the election, the group plans to put their strength behind the candidate who presents the best energy campaign, regardless of party affiliation.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s a partisan thing,” said Wessel. “It’s really about keeping jobs in the state, keeping Vermonters here and preserving our environment.”
For all the political work that Wessel and LaFarge expect to be doing, they say that the campaign is as much about celebrating the role that young people can have in Vermont’s politics as it is about encouraging the candidates to talk about clean energy.
“If we stop having fun this summer, and rallies become more about political maneuvering and less about getting into silly costumes and biking around to talk about clean energy with people we didn’t know before, we should stop,” said LaFarge. “That’s what we’re going to add to this.”
Above all else, Wessel and LaFarge hope that the campaign will encourage young people to get involved and potentially stay in the state.
“We’re trying to activate and mobilize young Vermonters around politics, but also around clean energy jobs in Vermont,” said LaFarge. “This is a part of our future.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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