Burlington Free Press: ‘We can work together to build our energy future’

Feb 04, 2011 No Comments by

Reposted here from the Burlington Free Press.

By Jim Merriam

I believe we can work together to build our energy future.

Across Vermont, there are community energy groups, industry associations and issue-related groups that are meeting to address our energy challenges. After attending and participating in many of these discussions, I find myself continually amazed at the knowledge and sincerity represented by diverse groups coming together to develop solutions that serve the common good.

In Brookfield, the town I call home, we have leveraged efficiency efforts at my daughter’s school to improve vastly the quality of the learning environment while stabilizing the school’s operating expenses — a win-win for our community.

We care about our energy future, and for myriad reasons: environmental, economic and political. To harness and honor the passion and dedication of Vermonters best, we need to ensure there is a revitalized energy vision for our state.

Doing so is deceptively simple — through a state energy plan that’s comprehensive, strategic and aggressive. Such a plan, if done right, can create the bridge between our broad goals as a state, and individual projects on the community level. What we need to prevent is allowing individual issues to define our dialogue and future, stalling the development of our green economy.

Although the vision is not quite clear yet, our immediate goals provide a light at the end of the tunnel.

Legislation enacted in 2008 established a goal that 20 percent of total statewide electricity be generated by renewable energy by 2017. Also mandated is a goal to improve the energy fitness of at least 20 percent of the state’s housing stock by 2017. If attained, these two achievements would boost the economy of our state and place us on a path toward electrical and heating energy sustainability.

The benefit to all Vermonters would be an increase in the life of our electrical infrastructure and stabilized energy costs for businesses, institutions, and residents — much like at my daughter’s school. The path of energy efficiency is an essential component in achieving these goals.

As director of Efficiency Vermont, I’m fortunate to play an active role in solving the question of our energy future — asking questions that need to be asked, and having conversations with Vermonters of all stripes. There are challenges ahead: Currently, about 80 percent of what we spend on energy leaves the state. In contrast, the good news is that 80 percent of what we spend on efficiency improvements stays within the state.

When 80 percent stays in-state, we all benefit, from contractors and supply-chain actors to neighbors across the 251 towns in Vermont. I do not forget easily the sincere appreciation of efficiency contractors who have been able to find stable employment in this tough economy.

Businesses benefit, too; energy-saving projects strengthen the bottom line and have a positive impact on employee work environments in the warehouse, shop floor or office. As a former operations manager, I remember the feeling of respect workers felt on the factory floor the day after we switched the lighting from an unnatural yellow to clean, efficient lighting.

Yet another testament to the force of the emerging green economy is Efficiency Vermont’s Better Buildings by Design Conference, taking place in February. With more than 1,000 industry participants involved in learning and establishing comprehensive strategies to improve Vermont’s housing energy efficiency, this event highlights the potential that exists when goals and vision start to align.

On the horizon is a similar expansion of the green economy with the impending rollout of the statewide SmartGrid initiative. With a goal of reaching all Vermonters, SmartGrid represents a unique opportunity to integrate efficiency opportunities more tightly with the efforts of utilities, renewable power generators and ratepayers. The potential opportunities for energy savings, innovation and job creation are profound.

Accomplishments have been achieved, but there remain conversations to be had across our state: How will our energy be generated, where will it come from, and what environmental and financial costs we are willing to pay for? Do we want to achieve our energy goals by importing our power from other states? How do we live comfortably with the trade-offs the solutions require?

Out of many questions, one vision.

I hope as a state we once again can set a bold energy vision and strategy that keeps Vermont at the forefront of thought and action — an energy-smart Vermont for my daughter and the future generation of our state.

Jim Merriam is director of Efficiency Vermont. He came to VEIC from groSolar, where he was chief operating officer. He is on the board of directors of Renewable Energy Vermont and chairman of the School Board in his hometown of Brookfield. Contact Jim Merriam at jmerriam@veic.org.

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