Climate opportunity: Initiative seeks creative innovations in new economy

MIDDLEBURY — How does a community position itself to reap the benefits of the new climate economy? That was the core question about 75-100 Middlebury-area residents grappled with Monday afternoon and evening at the kick-off of the Greater Middlebury Climate Economy Initiative — a series of community forums and task forces that will work over the next couple of years to make progress toward a handful of community goals.
The Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD), partnering with Green Mountain Power and Efficiency Vermont, sponsored the Middlebury event.
“One can feel a little bit discouraged about the threat posed by climate change and what it represents,” Jon Copans, VCRD’s Program Director of Climate Economy Model Communities, said about climate change. “At the same time, those communities and those businesses who figure out the models for both increasing economic vitality and weaning ourselves off of carbon, are going to thrive in this new economy.”
With that objective in mind, eight forums were held Monday on topics related to economic opportunities presented by the economy moves away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Topics included: Renewable Energy Generation Opportunities for Home and Business; Housing; Neighborhood-Scale Initiatives; Local Food, Agriculture and Health; Energy Efficiency and Transformation Opportunities for Home and Business; Infrastructure and Transportation Efficiency; Business Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Jobs; and Middlebury’s Vision for Climate Success.
The VCRD took detailed notes of the conversations at all forums and will identify common themes. Community members will then be invited to reconvene on Oct. 26 to discuss those themes and vote on three to five topics — out of about 25 — that the community will set as goals to achieve. In November, task forces will be assembled and start to work on those initiatives.
Monday’s forums — held at Middlebury Town Offices, St. Stephens Episcopal Church, the Ilsley Library and Middlebury Union Middle School — took similar forms. All community members and visiting team members introduced themselves, and were asked to think about what the current climate economy landscape looks like in Middlebury, what obstacles they have been encountering, and what potential solutions they might imagine.
At Middlebury’s Town Office, a net-zero energy building equipped with an energy dashboard, two discussions focused on energy generation and efficiency at the home and business level. Community members recognized the encouraging progress made by Addison County and the state, including individual and commercial installation of solar panels and heat pumps.
Businesses and non-profits have also led the way in various energy efficiency programs, including audit services provided by Vermont Gas and Neighborworks of Western Vermont, Button Up workshops led by Efficiency Vermont, and community nonprofits like the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) that offer consistent ways to learn of new energy-related opportunities and take advantage of local and statewide programs.
One example cited was the state’s Vermont Home Energy Challenge, which set a goal in 2008 for improving the energy efficiency of 25 percent of the state’s homes. The town of Weybridge was recently recognized as improving the highest percentage of homes in its community over the past few years. Daniel Wright, a member of the Weybridge Energy Committee, said that the community’s smaller size and motivated leaders were keys to the town’s accomplishment.
Many residents at the forums stressed the need for more effective community-wide education, such as implementing cross-curricular projects in local schools that will allow students to engage and come up with theoretical and practical solutions. Middlebury College was also mentioned several times, as an institution that has the expertise and capacity to contribute to the community’s efforts.
Residents also noted that lower income groups face difficulties affording energy efficiency measures because of the relatively high cost compared to the current price of fossil fuels. That is, today’s price of oil and natural gas make the return on investment a lengthy process.
Betsy Bloomer, Director of Energy Innovation Center of Green Mountain Energy in Rutland, shared her own personal story of transforming her house. When she wanted to weatherize her large Victorian house in Rutland, the cost exceeded her budget at the time, so she had to postpone some improvements. Conversations about bringing banks on board to recognize the value of energy efficient homes (in terms of higher appraised values) and making loans more favorable for customers seeking to do energy-efficiency projects was one of the possible solutions noted. However, others noted there were few silver bullets to make such improvements more affordable when renovating larger, older homes.
“People get overwhelmed by the size of project because they are not just dealing with weatherizing, they are dealing with structural issues that have been neglected,” said Laura Asermily, Middlebury Select Board member, who has also been on the Middlebury Energy Committee for the past several years.
While obstacles are plentiful, the wide array of opportunities introduced by the “visiting teams” (area experts who specialize in energy efficiency measures) demonstrated there are resources in town and the surrounding area to help homeowners and business owners make progress. These experts also noted that Middlebury has the physical resources needed for a shift to wind, solar, hydro and other renewable energy sources.  
At one of the evening’s last forums, Middlebury’s Vision for Climate Success, Copans asked the more than a dozen people in the room what they were doing to make the changes needed to be successful in the new climate economy. Many agreed that the process of coming together as a community and discussing all facets of the challenge has been a crucial first step.
The 90-minute forums typically ended with members suggesting names of people that should be part of discussion. That list included: facility managers, teachers and educators, rental property owners, farm workers, bankers, contractors and realtors, construction workers, attorneys and other professionals.
“We do this work all over the state, and I have to say it’s incredible, the power of this community, the human capacity and the intelligence. The ability to get things done in Middlebury is like nowhere else,” said Paul Costello, Executive Director of the VCRD. “You should be ambitious.”

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