BFP: I Believe: ‘Vermont is at a crossroads when it comes to energy’

Feb 23, 2011 No Comments by

Commentary by Laura Arnesen from the Burlington Free Press.

I’m often left wondering why we don’t talk more about reducing energy consumption at home and in our businesses. Are we threatened by perceived inconvenience? Are we waiting for that one big invention? What type of legislation could help motivate us to do the right thing? It’s obvious we need to step it up right now.

Vermont is at a crossroads when it comes to energy. As a state, why don’t we challenge ourselves to go beyond changing our light bulbs and instead make conservation a top priority?

Forecasters say that in 5 years the United States could reduce energy use by 20 percent through conservation alone. That means Vermont could get most of the way toward replacing the energy the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant provides just by conserving. “The cheapest energy,” many experts note, “is the energy you don’t use.” What better way to avoid building new power plants than through conservation.

Let’s lead the nation in conservation as we embrace new technology.

I live in the Mad River Valley and last year helped raise money to buy Kingsbury Farm, which was sold later to the Vermont Foodbank. I was asked recently how I feel about the placement of solar panels on this beautiful, historic farm located on scenic Vermont 100. My response was that the solar panels tell me the Foodbank has embraced conservation and technology in a way that is making donated dollars go further. If the Foodbank spends less money on electricity, that means they can feed more hungry Vermonters.

It’s the perfect storm: the need to spend less because of the recession, the desire to use less energy, and the need to protect our children’s future.

When young voters are asked about their top issues, climate change rates high. They are scared that if we don’t address climate change, nothing else will matter. If you’ve ever lived with people who survived the Great Depression, you know how deeply ingrained conservation is in their lives. My parents and grandparents made us turn off lights when we left a room, and while my reminders drive my teenagers crazy, they are changing their habits. It’s clear the younger generation sees the connection between policy (they want leaders who care about the environment), innovation (hey, they love anything new!) and lifestyle. Now it’s the older generation’s job to live by example and conserve.

Because I am only one person in one family, I do what I can at home. That actually empowers me. I drive a car that gets dramatically better gas mileage than my last car. I carpool often, vote for leaders who will take action, hang clothes outside in warm weather or in the basement in winter, recycle, compost, implemented changes suggested in a home energy audit and do countless other small things to lessen my carbon footprint.

Despite increasing energy costs, our electric bill has gone down slightly these past few years. We need to do more, but at this point doing the right thing can save money — and that is motivating.

Speaking of motivation, businesses are realizing that making investments in green technology gives them some control over energy costs. With unpredictable and often skyrocketing energy bills, businesses are having a difficult time forecasting future expenses.

A friend of mine, Richard Travers, invented a green refrigeration technology called Freeaire. In the early 1970s, Trav was listening to his loud refrigerator (an old restaurant version) on a subzero night. It struck him that using cold outside air instead of electricity to run the refrigerator’s compressor would be a great way to save energy. Basically, refrigeration is a “dumb” technology — components remain on even when not needed, and that wastes energy.

Trav managed to finesse a good idea into a commercial refrigeration product that turns off individual components (compressors, door heaters, lights, evaporator fans, etc.) when not needed to reduce energy use in all climates.

Fast forward to 2011, when Freeaire refrigeration systems ( have been installed in hundreds of businesses and nonprofits around the U.S., slashing energy use. In fact, the Vermont Foodbank, Grafton Village Cheese, many Champlain Farms convenience stores and even Harpoon Brewery all run on Freeaire. Freeaire systems qualify for generous rebates from Efficiency Vermont and other utility companies across the nation.

This is where policy meets innovation. Add conservation to the mix, and we’ll start seeing change.

With proactive policy we can develop incentives to change habits. For instance, Efficiency Vermont helps individuals and businesses find, adopt and pay for energy-saving appliances and programs. The “bottle bill” passed in 1972, with the pending enhancements under consideration in this legislative session, will expand recycling in Vermont, another example of forward-thinking environmental policy.

Now for the most important energy policy enhancement: ensuring the price of energy accurately reflects costs. Energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and small hydro is competitive or even less expensive than energy from fossil fuels when real costs are calculated. Any equation must include the cost of global warming; the health, safety and environmental issues of coal mining; and the management and risks of nuclear waste.

When policy levels the playing field, change happens fast, and that is what we need.

I believe we need to embrace energy conservation, policy and innovation simultaneously in ways big and small to mitigate climate change.

Laura Arnesen is a marketing and fundraising consultant who lives with her family in Warren. She has a communications degree from Wake Forest University, serves on the board of Central Vermont Home Health and Hospice, volunteers in her community and strives to integrate environmental improvements into her life and work.

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