Powering up the town energy plan

Brick town hall of Williston Vermont

‘The cost of delay is too great’ 


Observer staff 

A year ago, the Williston Selectboard approved a town energy plan and incorporated it into the larger Town Comprehensive Plan that guides town government. 

The plan is the town’s response to global warming and contribution to the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, with its goal of sourcing 90 percent of Vermont’s energy needs from renewables by 2050. Created by a selectboard-appointed citizen task force, the plan lays out specific actions for the town to take to weatherize homes and businesses, reduce fossil fuel consumption and increase renewable energy generation. 

Proponents of the plan have ramped up pressure on the selectboard throughout this year to put it into action. As a first step, the board is considering hiring a full-time energy coordinator and empaneling a citizen energy committee, as the plan advises. 

“We need to move ahead today,” resident Kevin Thorley told the board at its meeting last week. “The cost of delay is too great.” 

The board discussed the parameters of a citizen energy committee last Tuesday, but took no action to create one. Board chair Terry Macaig said discussion about hiring a full-time energy coordinator would be on an upcoming selectboard agenda. 

Brian Forrest, who led the writing of the energy plan in 2019 as the town’s volunteer energy coordinator, noted that the town is set to receive an unsolicited $3 million in federal coronavirus relief this year that could be used to fund the energy coordinator position. 

“We need to stop treating the climate crisis as a minor annoyance … rather than the public safety crisis that it is,” he told the board. “For our children and grandchildren to have any chance to survive the effects of our heating planet, I ask you to hire an energy coordinator and create an energy committee, and fund them both rapidly and with urgency.” 

A proposal drawn up by Town Manager Erik Wells for a citizen energy committee structures it as an advisory panel of the planning commission. The committee would work with existing town administrators to implement the plan, along with support from the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission’s new energy project manager and possibly an Americorps intern. 

But plan proponents say hiring a full-time energy coordinator on town staff to work with the committee is critical to the plan’s implementation. 

“There are hard problems and hard decisions that need to be made in order to follow (the plan),” said Thorley, a member of the local environmental advocacy group Sustainable Williston. “It requires an energy coordinator — a professional in this field. We are past the point where an advisory committee is all that we need.” 

The energy committee would have 5-7 members, according to Wells’ outline. Resident Caylin McCamp, who works at the UVM Office of Sustainability, advised that at least one position on the committee should be reserved for a low-income resident and compensated with a stipend. That would bring a perspective that is different from the affluent residents who typically volunteer for town committees, she said, and include, for example, someone who rides a bus for transportation or is enrolled in home heating assistance. 

While implementing the town energy plan has the potential to reduce home heating costs through weatherization, and energy use costs through renewable generation, it also comes with an estimated $3 million cost to the town. That would equate to about $160 per year in additional property taxes for the average Williston homeowner. 

“It is a reasonable plan that will advance Williston into the expanding group of Vermont towns with vision and foresight regarding climate related issues,” resident Margaret Laughlin wrote in a letter to Wells.