December 13, 2017

Guest Column: How Vermont can lead climate change economy

By Justin Wheating

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Catalysts of the Climate Economy National Innovation Summit in Burlington. The summit brought together climate innovators from across the country to tell their success stories. It also highlighted the opportunities that exist here in Vermont to capture a slice of the economic activity presented by a changing climate.

Listening to the speakers, from national environmentalist Paul Hawken to local budding climate entrepreneurs like Paul Hines of Packetized Energy, I was struck by the opportunity Vermont has to be an incubator state for innovative climate solutions, which in turn provides opportunities for the state to address economic challenges.

Hawken, the keynote speaker, told attendees how the global agriculture system is one of the largest contributors of carbon and therefore one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Agriculture affects climate change through greenhouse gas emissions as well as through the conversion of forestland into agricultural land. Vermont has a proud history of being an innovative agricultural state. We have long been known for our rolling green hills dotted with cows and more recently for our quality food that stems from local farms. We now have an opportunity to build upon these strengths and also become known for innovative agricultural climate solutions.

We already have the fundamental building blocks in place. Our farm-to-plate network, cow power program, working forest lands, groundbreaking recycling food waste law, strongly supported CSA programs and sustainable farming practices position Vermont to become a leader nationally and even internationally in innovative agricultural climate solutions.

Another area ripe for further economic success is clean energy. Vermont has already benefited from successful deployment of conventional renewable energy sources like wind, solar and energy efficiency programs. One in every 16 workers in the state are now part of the clean energy economy, and Vermont has the highest number of per capita clean energy workers of any U.S. state. That number has increased by 1,366 since last year, and increased 29 percent since 2013.

As president of NRG Systems, which is based in Hinesburg and employs 109 Vermonters, I get to participate in the Vermont climate economy every day. While we must continue to support wind, solar and other traditional clean energy technologies, we should also look toward other alternative energy sources such as biomass.

Wood-pellet heating, which we use in our LEED Gold certified building, presents an attractive opportunity since the majority of our state is forested, and wood-pellet heating has a much smaller footprint than conventional fossil-fuel-based heating. Increased statewide incentives for converting to these technologies would bring a myriad of benefits – new jobs, reduced dependence on imported energy, and a shrinking carbon footprint all at the same time.

The foundation is in place for Vermont to become a national and global leader in combating climate change while boosting Vermont’s economy. The question now for private business owners, entrepreneurs, investors and public policy makers is how do we take the next steps and build off of that foundation.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development is a leader in this process with its Climate Economy Initiative. To date, the initiative has formed the Climate Change Economy Council to develop a practical action plan, gathered input at public forums, convened the Climate Economy Action Team to advance and implement key objectives of the action plan, launched the Climate Economy Model Communities Program to help communities fight climate change and become more affordable, and hosted the Catalysts of the Climate Economy National Innovation Summit.
To get involved, or to just keep an eye on the progress, please check them out online at: vtrural.org/programs/climate-economy.

Justin Wheating is president of NRG Systems, a Hinesburg company that develops renewable energy monitoring technology.

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