Dan Jones Commentary: The cost of our prosperity

This commentary is by Dan Jones. Dan, a Montpelier resident is a Managing Partner of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

Dan Jones, Montpelier VT
Dan Jones, Montpelier VT

My friend Ed is in his 70s and he’s rebuilding his house near Spruce Mountain. To make his life easier in old age, he is laying a new slab and will live on one level. An engineer, Ed claims he can live off the grid using solar panels to charge his impending electric vehicle.

While proclaiming the best of efficiency intentions, Ed admits that his new situation is “not massively reducing his carbon consumption. The new structure is built with a lot of local materials, but the foam, concrete, and roofing have very large carbon and resource footprints. It will surely save some fuel over the next few years, and will be much nicer to live in”, but in the last analysis, he admits that “the planet can probably not afford me.”

Ed is demonstrating the dueling perceptions that are shared by many of our “green” neighbors spread across the Vermont hillsides. While loving his life upon the land, he beginning to recognize that his lifestyle exerts a cost upon the earth that will not be sustainable. Until recently, few of us were able to recognize these costs, but now many of us are starting to soberly include them in our personal and collective future planning. We recognize these costs will fall heavily on our children. The emerging debt will be paid in climate disruptions and financial dislocations that, at the moment, are not discussed in polite company. Truth be told, however, these disruptions are about to upset the entire economic system underlying the suburban and rural sprawl which defines a middle class lifestyle.

To explain how this disruption is coming about, I fear I am going to have to take a short dive into economic history. Basically, our entire system of profligate energy use, and our belief in the need for constant economic growth, developed hand in hand. For most of human history, our only energy to do work involved human and animal muscle power (some of it was supplemented by wind in the sails and watermills, but not a lot). Then, a bit over the 200 years ago, we began to create a technological infrastructure powered by steam fires using cheap coal and oil. Rapidly the factories of the Industrial Revolution began to produce trains then autos, home furnaces and soon a cornucopia of consumer products running on cheap energy. Such exploding new wealth generated a new science — economics — based on an assumption of an endless supply of future productive earnings driven by eternal access to cheap fuel. This, in turn, fed public faith in the promise of increasing collective wealth provided by constant economic “growth.”

In this new world of constant growth we could all participate in the feast of ever increasing consumption purchased with ever increasing debt. We believed that debt was guaranteed to be paid back through ever increasing oil-fueled productivity. As people became more prosperous in the years following World War II, this debt driven consumer economy allowed them to move out of the industrial cities onto the beautiful countryside. Suburban and rural sprawl soon defined our middle-class lives.

By the mid 70s this “rural sprawl” had transformed once rural Vermont farm towns such as Calais, East Montpelier and Plainfield into suburban bedroom communities. Folks from Montpelier and Barre, along with immigrating flat-landers, spread across the hillsides in order to live “close to the land”. The idyllic setting of their homes compensated for the hassles of driving long distances and finding parking in the small cities..

Bill McKibben at Goddard College
Bill McKibben at Goddard College

But about 15 years ago, social and environmental critics like Bill McKibben noted that there really was a huge, long term, cost to this prosperity. They predicted that the world would soon suffer the pervasive costs of climate change and resource depletion (what they called “peak oil”). The economic shocks following 9/11, the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, and catastrophic hurricanes left us feeling kind of rocky. Human beings tend to live in denial that we’re approaching an economic and climatic tipping point. Even in the face of the evidence, we usually default to a belief set that assumes tomorrow will look pretty much like yesterday.

Naomi Klein’s recent book: This Changes Everything starkly calls out our consumerist denial over the climate catastrophe. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is calling out the takeover of our government by the oligarchs. Their arguments are connected: the “economic growth” demanded by our “free market” debt economy requires constant increased use of fossil fuels. More fossil fuel use means more global warming. More money spent on producing energy means less money to pay back our debts. It’s a vicious cycle. The longer we practice our business-as- usual approach to the future, the harder it’s going to be to escape this cycle as conditions worsen.

The future isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Vermont is privileged to be small enough, and its people educated enough, to make rational choices more quickly than bigger places with deeply entrenched infrastructure and economic ties. Now is the time to imagine how we can shelter ourselves from the overhang or coming energy and economic challenges.

I believe we can build a new Vermont economy based on shared resources of transportation and energy that will ultimately save the $2 billion we now currently send out of state for oil products. I believe we can fashion a more co-operative economy that could keep our wealth working here in our state, rather than disappearing down the Wall Street sewer. We can do a lot with our local resources — but we first need to re-imagine our rural-sprawl lifestyle, and focus building a more resilient world that will feed and nurture our children, and theirs.


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David Blittersdorf: A brighter energy future for Vermont

This commentary is by David Blittersdorf. He is the president and CEO of AllEarth Renewables and past president/founder of NRG Systems, both Vermont manufacturing companies.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 9.45.51 AM
David Blittersdorf, President and CEO of AllEarth Renewables

In a recent commentary, “Destroy Vermont to save it,” Sen. Joe Benning, the Republican minority leader, demonstrates a dangerously backwards ideology that is inclined to try to save Vermont by simply destroying it.

And here’s why: Benning has a fixation on how Vermont has been, where almost every dollar we spend on energy is exported out of state, where we pass the buck of our carbon addiction on to future generations and where we fail to incubate the local jobs necessary to actually employ our people. Pretty bad policies, right?

Now picture a different Vermont, where people are employed in clean technologies, like those at NSA Industries, in St. Johnsbury, or Engineers Construction Inc., in Williston, or Grennon’s Solderworks, in Bristol, or PCM Precision, in Springfield. Picture homes, businesses, and public buildings powered by solar, on their roofs and in their backyards, and wind farms majestically and quietly powering our state. Picture our working landscape of cows and crops intermixed with solar electricity. That’s a picture of progress, of true Yankee frugality and ingenuity. That is a state I will be proud of, and one where I want my children’s children to live.

Homeowners, Neil and Theresa Fitzgerald, along with Dan Kinney of Catamount Solar, talking with neighbors about the solar project.
Homeowners, Neil and Theresa Fitzgerald, along with Dan Kinney of Catamount Solar, talking with neighbors about the solar project.

As a native Vermonter, born, educated and building businesses here who first started tinkering with wind energy on my sugarhouse, I think about how in our state’s proud history we didn’t cling to the past to make decisions about our future. We let past industries go, we welcomed electricity and the interstate system, and we looked out for what was right.

Fact is, Vermont exports nearly $3 billion in energy costs each and every year. We could continue sending our hard earned money out of state, or we could keep those dollars here and save everyone money. We could also be better insulated from the rate shocks we’ve seen from California to Massachusetts resulting from over-reliance on out-of-state or volatile fossil fuel sources.

Fact is, Vermont’s clean energy sector is one of the fastest growing job-creating sectors in our state, employing over 16,000 Vermonters. In Vermont, the solar industry grew by over 21 percent last year, the same industry that nationwide is creating jobs at a rate 10 times faster than the economy at large. Apparently, some would prefer to let this growing tech sector pass our state by, and the jobs and businesses that go along with it. I’m proud to have created two Vermont manufacturing businesses centered around renewable energy technology that have employed hundreds.

Fact is, solar developed around unproductive or unused farmland is the perfect complement to our agricultural landscape, preserving this open space for a lifetime of productivity. Farmers around the state are welcoming the opportunity to host solar arrays to keep their farms afloat and their land open.

Fact is, the approximately 10 square miles we need to meet current electric demands in solar represent less than .17 of one percent of our land. Think about the farmers, landowners, and towns that benefit from hosting these arrays that silently produce energy for our local economy’s consumption. We need rooftop solar everywhere, but all our viable roofs will only produce 4 percent of the energy we need.”

As Vermonters, we don’t shirk big challenges. Nor do we send our problems elsewhere for others to deal with. That’s exactly what’s at stake here. By not confronting our own energy challenges we will continue to rely on other states for our energy solutions and continue to write IOUs to our children and grandchildren for the effects of our addiction to spewing carbon. That’s simply not the Vermont way.

I’ll admit, this isn’t going to be easy. And the renewable energy industry needs to be good Vermont corporate citizens as well, listening to the concerns of communities and neighbors, working with all parties to see that projects are built in the best way possible, and finding ways to ensure real local benefits for landowners, towns, and the public good at large.

None of us, Sen. Benning included, can in good conscience fill up our car with fossil fuels or flick on the light switch without thinking about whether we are truly doing our part and, most importantly, whether we are building a future Vermont as bright as our past.


Dan Jones Commentary: The Deep Costs of Our Mobility

Adapting to Changing Conditions

This commentary is by Dan Jones. Dan is an energy activist in Montpelier, and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee. 

Dan Jones, Montpelier VT
Dan Jones is an energy activist in Montpelier, and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

News Flash: One recent summer storm’s flood damage in Plainfield amounted to a third of the town budget, yet it wasn’t enough damage to warrant emergency Federal aid.   The Plainfield select Board is looking for creative ways to cover this cost   As I understand, right now damage repair is currently on hold.

People in Plainfield and Barre are still scratching their heads wondering how this kind of flooding could come along just 4 years after Irene.  Perhaps they failed to notice that such torrential downpours have been long predicted as a growing part of the global warming disruptions.  In fact, many of us may have noticed how many downpours we are getting in our summer rains of late.

Such regular destructive events are going to be a more frequent part of our local climate, along with rougher winters and polar vortices.  This, unfortunately, will require spending a lot more of our collective wealth just to keep repairing the roads, bridges and utilities.  Pay attention other select boards.  This is probably going to be a major cost center for your future budgets.

Not only that, but with the increased toxic run off from the roads and the river side parking lots, even more is going to have to be spent keeping nasty chemicals contained and out of Lake Champlain.  Of course, this is just the start of the economic disruptions we are beginning to experience from global warming.  However it is right now;  not 35 years off in the future.   At the rate we are going, in 20 years we might not be able to keep up with the dislocations coming from a the steady stream of weather disasters.  A distant California drought is one thing, but the expensive climate destruction happening here in Vermont, requires us to face a different challenge.

IMG_2525This growing problem threatens most of central Vermont’s entire lifestyle and living patterns consisting, as it does, of dispersed single-family homes dotting the beautiful hillsides.  Access to that lifestyle is completely dependent on a well maintained road and utilities system.   It doesn’t take a climate scientist to tell you that most of those costs will just keep rising as we sink deeper into the realities of climate disruption.

For the sake of discussion, let us now consider that increased maintenance of our roads and parking lots should now be included as part of our real cost of energy.  As flooding and toxic run off events repeat and increase, the costs of maintaining our rural infrastructure will further strain already stretched town budgets.  Keeping the electricity and the cable flowing down those back roads will simply become much more expensive.

Our commitment to a rural lifestyles, in time, will probably change.  When it does, we will need some place local to move that will allow us to continue to be in Vermont.  Allow me to suggest that we consider the re-imagining and re-building of our small cities like Montpelier.

Instead of a hub for a bunch of commuter suburbs, perhaps Montpelier could be a sustainable small urban hub.   Getting rid of the 60% of Montpelier’s downtown, now paved over to provide toxic run off parking, would open up the needed real estate to change our ideas of living through climate change.   In addition, its central VT location provides Montpelier  increased attractiveness a hub for sustainable, affordable living next to natural Beauty.   New business and affordable homes coupled with a robust local transportation system could make our central city the place to live,  Imagine what a sustainable future we could create if Montpelier were to re-imagine its downtown as a locus of housing and commercial activity.  Such are comprehensive scheme could provide a sustainable future for our children and theirs?

Extensive affordable housing downtown would allow Seniors to downsize from their empty nests and young people could afford to join our community.  Multiple shared forms of transportation that would allow us the convenience of our personal cars without the cost or parking commitments or energy demand.”

I  will have more to say about these kinds of positive options in the coming weeks.   The goal is to stop feeling attacked by climate change, but rather, how we could use our culture and ingenuity to model how people can adapt to change conditions and gain a lot of benefits along the way.

As will become evident from my next article, I think we would be smart to consider initiating  this transformation quickly while the remnants of our wealth are here to pay for it.  Its time to consider making changes that we want, rather than those that are forced upon us by rapidly degenerating environmental and economic conditions.

We could use our new understanding of climate economics and work together to aggressively create a much more resilient future right here at home in central Vermont.

Montpelier resident Dan Jones is a Managing Partner of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

Dan Jones: It’s time to take responsibility

This commentary is by Dan Jones. Dan is an energy activist in Montpelier, and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

Dan Jones, Montpelier VT
Dan Jones is an energy activist in Montpelier, and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

My friend David Blittersdorf recently suggested in an Addison County Democrats meeting “that we need to imagine a future in Vermont with no more cars, and take up living in sturdier, small central towns and cities that can be heated and powered efficiently.” Climate change deniers, throughout Vermont, quickly attacked him, asserting that global warming is a hoax and finding the suggestion of giving up our cars and building renewable local power on our landscapes is part of a fascist form of social control.

While these deniers are not the majority, they do provide a political pickle for those trying to create a rational response to a looming catastrophe. For instance, on these pages, reasonable people who understand the problem — from The Times Argus editors to writers such as Alan Betts, Tom Watkins and the owner of the Alchemist Brewery — have tried to encourage vigorous, more realistic responses to the scientific facts about the dire consequences of global warming. Such changes are outlined by the U.N.’s international Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change study, “Climate Change 2014, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” A subsection from the British Royal Society study indicates that it will be virtually impossible to meet the goals of keeping temperature rise to only 4 degrees Fahrenheit. This failure will create climate chaos around the world.

South Royalton, VT
“… take up living in sturdier, small central towns and cities that can be heated and powered efficiently.” South Royalton, Vermont

The global climate is already changing for the worse. The British study pretty much admits that a global temperature change of more than 8 degrees Fahrenheit is now unavoidable. So wake up, folks. We are already seeing lots of environmental crises with just under a 1.5 degree rise, with droughts, fires, floods and refugees. Eight degrees will melt ice caps, raise sea levels and produce catastrophic weather events.

To change this trajectory, we are all going to have to make rapid, uncomfortable changes in our own lives. The needed changes will require personal sacrifice, well beyond switching to energy-efficient bulbs and driving hybrid cars. We will need to quickly build a world without personal cars, separately heated homes in the countryside, fossil fuel-fired electric plants, methane-spewing factory farms and more before the middle of the century.

The reality is, for the first time in world history, our modern society must recognize we live in a finite world.

Such massive changes are more than most people can accept and act upon. It’s less painful to think about Donald Trump’s hairdo or the newest phone app. Without a visible, immediate enemy, Americans have a terrible time agreeing to any pain or dislocation. A recent article in the Washington Post listed seven mental attitudes that people adopt to protect themselves from worrying about needed changes. These ranged from falling back on ideology to a default assumption that the future will look like the past. We are pretty much hard wired to avoid every threat until it can’t be avoided any longer.

Sadly, even people who do accept that global warming is a reality find many ways to beg off their personal responsibility. Some say, “I can’t afford to do any more, or I’m not earning enough to insulate my house.” Others have told me they flat-out don’t give a damn: “This won’t be a problem till the end of the century, and I will be dead by then, so who cares?” Many people think that a technological silver bullet will save the planet. “Surely, you have heard about this new battery or flexible solar panels that will save us,” they say.

This silver-bullet thinking is understandable because, in America, it is considered a grievous sin to look at the future without having faith in all the positive elements of our character and destiny. Americans are doers, with a strong sense of optimism and ingenuity. Many believe we can invent our way out of any problem using our imagination and our technical prowess. This American cultural bias toward optimism and ingenuity prevents us from realistically facing our actual challenges.

This is an especially bad situation in so-called green Vermont. I have heard ever so many people say, “Why should we make the hard changes? We are a tiny state, and anything we do won’t make a difference in the global problem.” Sadly, most individuals around the country would give the same rationalization.

Meanwhile, those who are getting rich off selling fossil fuels, real estate and factory food are quite content to keep the current state of affairs going. The poor folks who buy their party line will be the real victims because they will refuse to make any changes in their lives until it is way too late. Right here in Vermont, the research, along with our own experience of repeated weather events, indicates that it may be already getting too late. The longer we refuse to make changes in our lifestyles and living patterns, the more suffering there will be locally as our complex systems begin to break down.

We need a real public debate on our probable futures, rather than continuing to believe that the future will be like the past. To help get that debate going, I will be offering a series of articles on our climate change choices over the coming weeks. I look forward to reasoned responses on charting a course forward.

Dan Jones is a managing partner of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chairman of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee. He lives in Montpelier.