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Efficiency help needed, energy advocates say


By Mike Faher as seen in

BRATTLEBORO – From urine recycling to shiitake mushrooms to electrically-assisted bikes, those attending a “Climate Change Economy” discussion here Tuesday night had no trouble coming up with a diverse list of causes and pet projects.

But one issue that came up repeatedly was energy efficiency – how important it is, and how difficult and expensive it can be for Vermonters to make existing homes and businesses more environmentally friendly.

The problem with even the most “green” strategies for new building is that, “really, we have already built most of the buildings that we’re going to use,” said Bob Stevens, president of Brattleboro-based architecture and engineering firm Stevens & Associates.

“If we’re not using less (energy) within our existing buildings, it’s going to be hard to make a dent,” Stevens said.

The forum at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre was the second of three such sessions being held statewide; the final meeting is set for Oct. 29 in Burlington. It is the public-outreach phase of what’s called the Vermont Climate Change Economy Initiative, a movement that aims to create jobs; attract youth and entrepreneurs; and raise Vermont’s national profile while combatting global warming.

The Montpelier-based Vermont Council on Rural Development is coordinating the effort and has created a Vermont Climate Change Economy Council. Armed with information from this year’s public meetings, the group will present a detailed plan to state officials in early 2016 and has scheduled a Vermont Climate Economy Summit for Feb. 22 at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

Paul Costello, the council on rural development’s executive director, told the Brattleboro crowd that the momentum is coming from the ground-up as towns consider matters such as energy policies, downtown development, agriculture and transportation. At the same time, there also is widespread concern about creating jobs and dealing with troubling demographic trends.

“Everyone is confronting the loss of youth,” Costello said. “The demographic challenges we talk about are real. The problems they present for our educational system and funding are real. But we also have strong communities that work together. We have tremendous assets.”

“They add up to an economic-development strategy that’s being built street to street, town to town across the state of Vermont,” Costello added. “But we’re not telling the story as big and as boldly as we could.”

For example, “we have a green building cluster down here, which most of Vermont doesn’t really know about yet,” Costello said.

Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which co-hosted Tuesday’s forum, has received federal money for a Green Building Cluster Study to identify Windham County’s strongest assets in environmentally friendly construction. And a prime player in that movement is Brattleboro’s BuildingGreen Inc.

Peter Yost, vice president of technical services, said BuildingGreen has national reach, but recently began focusing on local work. The company is part of the Windham Wood Heat Initiative, which aims to convert at least 20 municipal and school buildings to wood-heating systems.

Yost also talked about BuildingGreen’s efforts to shrink the size of its own carbon footprint. While the organization’s headquarters has been converted to wood-pellet heating, and its electricity comes via “cow power,” Yost said BuildingGreen’s largest carbon contribution comes from an unexpected source – staff travel.

That’s something that also troubles Stevens. “You think about how much time we as a people spend driving from place to place or moving goods from place to place – there’s a tremendous amount of energy wasted in that,” he said. “And we’ve spent the last 60 to 100 years creating a built landscape that is predicated on very cheap energy.”

He believes compact, mixed-use centers are the answer – a model not unlike the traditional settlement pattern of New England villages. And Stevens can point to a close-to-home model for mixed-use development, as he was a partner in the redevelopment of downtown Brattleboro’s fire-damaged Brooks House complex that now houses business, apartments and educational facilities.

“We’re designers, architects and engineers, and we think about each project that we do and how does that fit into the context of building a community that’s more sustainable,” Stevens said.

The reincarnation of the historic Brooks House also features improvements such as new insulation, air-sealing and windows; water-source heat pumps; and energy-efficient lighting, appliances and equipment.

That tied into a recurring question at Tuesday’s forum: Why isn’t Vermont making more progress on the energy-efficiency front?

Jim Verzino, a Brattleboro resident and business consultant, said he believes “it’s not really a technical problem – it’s a financing problem.” There are efficiency programs for low-income homeowners and for public buildings, he said, but not enough available financial assistance to spur energy conversions among middle-class homeowners.

“We have this huge housing stock that’s incredibly inefficient,” Verzino said.

Tad Montgomery, an ecological engineer in Brattleboro, pointed out that there is a program for financing home-energy improvements in Vermont – the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, or PACE. It allows property owners to borrow money for energy projects, with long-term financing tied to the property – not the owner – so that it can be easily transferred to the next homeowner.

“Beautiful program, (but) nobody’s using it in the state, because it is so complex that the average homeowner can’t get into it easily,” Montgomery said. “So one big recommendation to the governor and to the Legislature is, publicize that in a way that the average person could say, ‘Oh, wow, I could do this, and I could save a boatload of money.’”

A variety of other topics came up at Tuesday’s forum, including:

• Transportation: Dave Cohen of Brattleboro-based VBike, who brought one of his electrically-assisted bikes into the theater for the meeting, said “human power” must be part of all energy-policy discussions.

“What I’ve noted is, in a lot of presentations about energy, we’re completely left out,” Cohen said. “It’s like we don’t even count ourselves.”

If Vermont hopes to retain and attract millennials, officials must keep in mind that they are driving less and biking and walking more. “They want to live in places where they can get around by these modes of transportation,” Cohen said.

• Agriculture and food systems: A younger demographic also was on the mind of Orly Munzing, founder and director of Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers. Munzing traced her organization’s humble beginnings as an agricultural festival and its rapid growth into a Main Street-based nonprofit that encourages growth in the farm and food sectors.

“Strolling of the Heifers is more than a parade,” Munzing said. “The parade and the festival is the engine that raises the money for all of the work that we do year-round.”

• State investment: Jonathan Morse, a local builder and a charter member of the Sustainable Energy Outreach Network, said the state can’t shy away from investment in new ideas. He cited the growth potential of Brattleboro’s Rich Earth Institute, which recycles urine for use as a fertilizer.

“We have to take some chances,” Morse said. “We have to be innovative.”

• Forest products: Montgomery said Vermont’s forest-based economy can be expended beyond staples such as lumber and maple syrup. One potentially lucrative example, he said, is shiitake mushrooms.

“There are literally hundreds of other crops that we could be harvesting from our forest on a sustainable basis,” Montgomery said.