By Carl Etnier
When Montpelier committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 in 2014, did it commit all the residents and business owners and everyone else in the city to that ambitious goal, or did it just pledge to get its own house in order? At its October 24 meeting, the city council voted to define the 2030 goal as applying only to municipal operations. It also committed everyone and everything in town to 100 percent renewable energy, but that goal aims for 2050.
With 12 years left until the 2030 deadline, the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee (MEAC) spent the summer wrestling with the language from 2014, which simply referred to “the city.” Chair Kate Stephenson said in a phone interview, “The understanding from the committee was that it [the 2014 goal] wasn’t just the city, it was community wide.” The committee took another look at the issue, however, to clarify the language. “We ended up having two or three energy committee meetings and a strategic planning retreat. I would say the committee was split between, ‘just go for it and set the big audacious goal’ versus ‘no one in this room thinks we’re going to be 100 percent net zero by 2030, so let’s end up with a definition that we might be able to reach.’”
The result is both a restriction of the 2030 goal to municipal operations—city buildings, school bus fleets, and so forth—as well as permission for the city to use some fossil fuels as long as the emissions are offset. Offsets are typically achieved by paying for emission-reduction projects elsewhere, for example, building weatherization or wind turbines. City equipment can continue to run on diesel, for example, with the purchase of carbon credits.
The 2050 goal, for 100 percent renewable energy, allows no offsets. To meet that goal, all vehicles and equipment would need to run on electricity or some sort of biofuel, in addition to heating and electricity being from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectricity. The goal is more ambitious than the state’s official energy strategy of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.
The council voted to adopt the new MEAC goal definitions in a resolution that included, for the first time, mechanisms to help the city meet the goals. Stephenson said, “We talked a lot in the committee about how do you write it into everyone’s job description who works for the city of Montpelier that they have to help toward the net-zero goal. Right now, it’s not in anybody’s job description.”
The result was direction to each city department to find ways to move toward the net-zero carbon emissions goal and to report annually to the council and to develop a 10-year plan “to achieve the city’s net-zero goal.” The language doesn’t specify whether the plan is to focus on the 2030 goal for municipal operations or the 2050 goal for the entire city, perhaps setting up another recalibration down the road. The council also directed staff members and the planning commission to recommend ways to align zoning regulations with the net-zero goal—changes that could affect land use and building construction in the city.
While the city council has now effectively put all staff members—or at least department heads—on notice that their job descriptions include finding ways to move to net-zero energy use, both Stephenson and Mayor Anne Watson envision hiring someone with sustainability work as their main focus, as an “energy and facilities coordinator.” In a letter to councilors and top city staff members, Stephenson cites Lebanon, New Hampshire, and White River Junction as creating similar positions. Stephenson is urging the city to create the position in the fiscal year 2020 budget.
One thing the coordinator could do is administer the city’s energy-related revolving loan fund. In her testimony to the council on October 24, Stephenson described how the $20,000 fund was drawn on in 2017 to pay for a capacitor at the water treatment plant—the investment helped reduce peak electricity demand and has paid for itself already, she said. Three more projects are underway, and only $13,000 of the fund is committed to them. But MEAC has identified dozens of potential energy-saving projects in city buildings, and it’s been a labor-intensive process for committee volunteers to work with city staff members to winnow through them and recommend next steps. A paid staffer with that job could move forward more quickly.
Some energy projects offer paybacks even faster and that are more dramatic than the water treatment capacitor. MEAC hired the consulting firm CX Associates to look at energy use at the police station, and the company found that replacing a $20 fan switch could cut the heating load in half and save $14,000 a year.
Watson says she’ll recommend to the council that they fund the position of the energy and facilities coordinator. When asked about energy coordinators who save so much money for their employers that they more than pay for their salary, Watson acknowledged she’d heard that could be the case, at least for the first few years. But, she said, “It’s also possible that, if they’re really good at their job, that they’ll put themselves out of work. I want to get to that point.”
Carl Etnier serves on the Select Board and Energy Committee in East Montpelier, which hasn’t adopted a net-zero energy plan.