by Dan Jones
It’s now been a year since the Montpelier City Council made the unanimous commitment for the city to become “net zero” in fossil fuel use by 2030. This big goal — to meet all of the energy needs of the city and its residents through renewable supplies in 15 years — is imperative. It’s also aggressively ambitious and, frankly, seems bigger and more challenging as the city pursues those actions needed to accomplish it.
Committing a city government to a course of action is one thing, but it is quite another to commit the entire community to partnering in that effort. A whole-community approach requires a reimagining and realigning of how people use and generate energy. Not a simple undertaking by any means, but it lays the groundwork for a commitment to a healthy future local economy. The money we currently send out of town for oil and gas will, instead, create local jobs which will, in turn, depend on local workers, not global corporations. As we move more deeply into this effort our little city’s current challenge is to figure out how to mobilize our diverse community — everyone — in a really long term push towards getting people off of dirty, dwindling fossil fuels.
The City of Montpelier, largely under the leadership of the appointed, volunteer Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee (MEAC) is engaged in a multi-pronged effort. It is attempting to mobilize resources, inspire behavior change and motivate Montpelier-ites to invest in non-fossil fuel solutions to meet our ambitious goal. MEAC has divided our strategies up into different areas of energy use: heating, electric generation and transportation. We are even tentatively exploring a much more difficult issue of how to possibly transform our housing density, since dense, minimal commuter, walk-able cities are much more energy efficient.
We have done a lot — but we have far more to do. And, we have a track record upon which to build, as this journey didn’t start with last year’s net zero commitment. It started over a decade ago with initial plans for a downtown district heat plant. The effort then grew through the work of our local energy teams, who knocked on doors promoting energy efficiency, surveyed city buildings and businesses for efficiency modifications.
In 2010, after the successful procurement of a DOE grant to support a downtown biomass district heat system, our current energy advisory committee was created by the city council to oversee the process. As we have matured and accomplished more, people from around the state have noted how lucky we are to have this committee, composed of knowledgeable and committed volunteers helping to build a resilient future for us all.
The now operating district heat system will replace about 300,000 gallons of oil per year costing almost a million dollars. Using regionally-sourced wood chips along with local maintenance services, the project is also keeping those dollars working locally. I am proud to report that this innovative project started delivering heat to state and city offices and to some downtown businesses in fall of 2014. Reports of our initial customers are glowing in terms of its reliability and realized savings.
There are other efforts afoot, too. Montpelier is now completing negotiations with a local solar energy developer to provide 1 MW of net-metered electric generation which will cover over 70% of the city’s electric consumption, likely at a 15 percent savings under the utility tariff. The School Department is completing a similar agreement for another 500Kw of solar generation, which will then cover their electrical needs. Our street lights are now LEDs. Even our sewage treatment plant has become a model of energy efficiency. This means that, except for city buses and vehicles that we are in sight of achieving our net zero goals, at least for our municipal operations. For the city residents and commuters, however, the work has hardly begun.
We are maturing and accomplishing more, with city and local leadership and the hard work of a dynamic, knowledgeable and committed cadre of volunteers. But, again, there is far more to do.
Getting homes and apartment houses in the efficiency mix is somewhat harder than school and municipal net zero improvements. Since 2006, according to Efficiency Vermont, over 10% of Montpelier homes have completed some level of weatherization work. Our energy committee is now in an intensive strategic planning effort to address the big energy demands of residential users and the whole transportation mix. For all of us, this work is the hardest because there are few easy, convenient alternatives.
Our big advantages, going forward, will be our small size. At 8,000 people we are able to move more quickly than larger political institutions, and there is an obvious benefit to being the capital city of Vermont. However, our population more than doubles mid day which brings vibrancy and resources to our local economy, but creates unique energy challenges.
Montpelier is also gaining in other ways from our commitment to become net zero. Recently President Obama sent a letter to Mayor Hollar honoring Montpelier as one of 16 Climate Action Cities in the country. This recognition will possibly give us a leg up in mobilizing Federal resources. We are also one of the nations 50 finalist competitors for the Georgetown University Energy Prize of $5 Million. The more electrical energy Montpelierites can save through efficiency and solar generation over the next year will help our prospects in that competition hugely.
We can boast many tangible results for a small city with such a forward looking commitment. There is much more real, hard work to do. But, if the next few years manifest anything close to the progress we have made to date, I believe it’s quite possible for the capital of Vermont to be a national model of a sustainable city by 2030.
Dan Jones is former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee