BRATTLEBORO—The students of Academy School sat and stood in a neat huddle awaiting their guest of honor.
Governor Peter Shumlin approached the podium at the school’s entrance on a breezy yet balmy morning.
Shumlin announced the funding of two renewable energy projects to the students and faculty on April 15. The school will be one of at least 20 buildings to convert from an oil-powered heating system to a high-efficiency wood-heat system, thanks to funds earmarked for Windham County within the state’s Clean Energy Fund.
Shumlin told the students that the environment has suffered from the use of power sources like coal, pollutants that have contributed to stronger weather like 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene.
Irene, he reminded the audience, followed closely behind two previous storms that damaged the northern part of the state.
“We have slowly changed our climate because we’ve put so many pollutants into the air,” he said. “It’s the change in climate that threatens us.”
To help leave a better environment for you, Shumlin told the students, Vermont must move to renewable sources of energy.
Energy grants to Windham County will play a role shifting the state from oil to renewable energy, he said.
Shumlin announced that Sustainable Energy Outreach Network (SEON), a Brattleboro-based organization, will receive $1.6 million to launch the Windham Wood Heat Initiative. This initiative will convert heating systems to high-efficiency biomass wood pellet/chip heating systems beginning with 20 school and municipal buildings.
Windham Wood Heat’s long-term goals include establishing the county as a hub for locally sourced wood and advanced-wood heating technology, and to strengthen the local forest economy.
SEON will collaborate with Building Green, the Windham Regional Commission, the New Hampshire-based Northern Forest Center, and other local organizations.
“Today, we are advancing the effort to move to clean, local, and affordable energy in Vermont by investing in renewable biomass heating for Windham County schools and public buildings,” said Shumlin. “Not only are these investments good for the environment, but they will save money for taxpayers on heating costs at our schools and municipal buildings.”
More money for solar loans, wood heat
Shumlin’s second announcement was an award of $300,000 from the Clean Energy Fund to support solar loans for residential projects in Windham County.
The funds will help reduce interest rates for borrowers through the Windham Solar Loan Program of the Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU).
According to a press release from VSECU, the funds will bolster the credit union’s VGreen energy savings program.
The program, open to all Windham County residents, comes with income-sensitivity guidelines. These guidelines provide greater support for borrowers with incomes lower than 120 percent of Windham County’s median income.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for the county from 2009 to 2013 was $50,234. According to the bureau’s statistics, 12.4 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.
The $1.9 million comes from Entergy as part of an agreement reached with the state after the corporation announced that it would close its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
Those funds fill two different buckets of money, each aimed at redeveloping Windham County’s economy.
The first program, the Windham County Economic Development Program, seeks to support economic development and job creation. The second funds clean-energy projects and is managed through the state’s Clean Energy Fund.
SEON Executive Director Guy Payne said that Windham County residents spend millions of dollars annually on heating oil, and most of that money — 78 cents for every dollar — leaves the local economy.
In comparison, 100 percent of every dollar spent on local wood fuel stays local.
Through switching the initial 20 schools and municipal building to wood heat, the Wood Heat Initiative anticipates keeping more than $500,000 in the local economy annually, said Payne.
When a building is chosen for the program, that school’s staff will receive mentoring from project development through to installation and incentives ranging from $10,000 to $75,000.
The initiative includes public education, training for local building professionals, and fuel-supply procurement.
SEON has championed Windham County as a green-building and renewable-energy hub for years. Many local organizations and businesses focused on green building, like Ironwood Brand or Integrated Solar, call the county home.
“Windham County is 90-percent forested,” Payne said. “We have the potential to become an extraordinary regional hub of modern wood-heating technology, professional development, and fuel supply and delivery.”
Questions from the kids
As the awards event closed, Shumlin took questions from students.
He encouraged the students to study STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), areas of education that could lead them to design new renewable- energy systems, or better predict strong storms.
He also encouraged the students to run for state government. He specifically encouraged the young women, saying Vermont needs to elect more female governors.
The governor told the kids that his job was a big one but that he likes big jobs when he feels that he is accomplishing big things.
“So, whatever job you choose,” he said, “If you get up in the morning and make a difference, it’s worth it.”