BRATTLEBORO — On a bright February day, more than 400 Vermonters converged in Randolph to contemplate climate change and the production of lemonade.
The summit that brought them together was designed to look for economic opportunities from dealing with this looming global problem, and there are many opportunities indeed.
Breakout groups included legislators, utility leaders, youth, business leaders, investors, the working lands community, and a municipal action panel that included Brattleboro's Peter Elwell.
Alongside Elwell were the mayors of Rutland, which has recently become known as the solar capital of New England, and Montpelier, which, with its downtown biomass district heating system, has a goal of becoming the first net-zero energy state capital in the U.S.A.
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The Vermont Climate Change Economy Council (VCCEC) was founded in February 2015 by the Vermont Council on Rural Development to foster and support an economy that actively addresses the challenge of climate change.
The council defines the climate economy to include key sectors of distributed energy development, green building, efficiencies, and resource recycling.
The term also includes the resilient foundation of our working lands economy, the innovative problem solving of the digital economy, and is a feature in all manufacturing, tourism, and community development in the climate-change era.
The council that organized this event kicked off the process with a similar event in 2015 that was just as robustly attended.
After a year of work they used the 2016 summit to present their recommendations, embodied in a seven-point platform that includes:
1. Comprehensive energy efficiency across sectors;
2. A Network Development Initiative to assist entrepreneurs;
3. Codes, regulations, and incentives that encourage climate-smart economic growth;
4. The stimulation of investment through a Clean Energy Finance Collaborative;
5. Development of a Carbon Pricing or Trading structure to stimulate economic growth;
6. A “model communities” program that garners attention for communities doing exemplary work in this area;
7. The marketing of Vermont as a national climate economy leader.
The breakout group of utility leaders was particularly enlightening, with the CEOs of five utilities participating.
When Act 56 passed last year, establishing a renewable-energy standard, it mandated that utilities start to address issues of home heating and transportation efficiency.
While utilities in other parts of the country might balk at this mandate and dig in their obstructing heels, ours seem to have accepted it with a sense of mission and urgency.
Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell talked about the insecurity of our grid and how promoting renewable and distributed energy can help to make the state energy independent and resilient.
“And it's cheaper,” she said, pointing to the three rate decreases that GMP has implemented over the past four years while renewable energy deployment has skyrocketed. “Vermont's biggest strategic leverages are its small size and innovative, collaborative spirit.”
The utility leaders all agreed that the standard business model of large-scale bulk energy production and “sticks and wires” to transmit it is in the beginning stages of decline. Utilities need to either lean into the changes that are washing over America and the world, or they will soon not exist.
“The god-given right of a utility to survive as a monopoly is coming into doubt,” one said.
Powell responded, “If you sit on the lid of progress, be prepared to be blown to bits. Our goal is to become the platform that fosters innovation [in the energy sector].”
A member of the audience marveled at the transformation in GMP over the last 15 years, from being “rather obstructionist” in these matters to a true leader.
Powell responded that the change is now reflected in the corporate structure with its switch to a B Corp - a certification process that confirms that a company meets “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency,” as described by the website of the nonprofit certifying organization, B Lab.
She said that B Corps companies have a mission to “do good” and be a force for positive change. The certification must be combined with an amendment to a company's bylaws that include a requirement that when making decisions, the company is responsible for considering all of its stakeholders: the environment, employees, customers, and the community it serves.
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The afternoon was filled with working sessions involving specific topics and initiatives. Michael Bosworth, chair of the Brattleboro energy committee, summed up the work of the participants succinctly by saying “When given lemons, make lemonade. If climate change is a big, fat lemon, then there should be plenty of lemonade in our future.”
The youth present seem to be picking up on this. At least 14 schools were represented, including our own Marlboro College, SIT/World Learning, and Antioch University New England. The passion in the youth break-out group was palpable.
Interspersed throughout the day were addresses by Vermont's political luminaries, including Rep. Peter Welch, House Speaker Shap Smith, and Senator Patrick Leahy, who took time away from dealing with the political time bomb issue of the Supreme Court nomination to speak at the summit.
Smith gave a strident rebuttal to those who pit climate change against economic development.
“Economic health is completely and utterly dependent on a livable planet!” he said, to raucous applause. “I want to be able to tell my children in 30 years that I used whatever power I had to help the planet while there was still time.”
Leahy asked the audience to “give me ammo” regarding climate change to use in his role as most senior member of the U.S. Senate.
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Vermont Council on Rural Development has posted links to the video and audio as well as any wrap-up reports and next actions to vtrural.org/summit16 when they become available.
People can also visit vtrural.org to join the partnership and stay informed, or call Jenna, the Community and Policy Manager, at 802-225-6091.
VCRD is taking the lead on organizing a National Climate Economy Summit in Vermont, as well as numerous of the other platform initiatives. Other key partners include VEIC/Efficiency Vermont, Energy Action Network, Vermont Natural Resources Council and the VT Sustainable Jobs Fund.