Letter from America: the US’s secret green test site

welcome to verrmontAlastair Harper is head of politics at Green Alliance. He’s currently participating in the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Programme on climate change. This is his second dispatch reporting on his experiences.

There is no typical America or American, but Vermont makes a particular effort to be untypical. Our tour group’s van driver is a polite, thoughtful man named Reg Godin. He normally waits in the van, but when we visit Montpelier for a meeting in the grand State House, he decides to join us. The place is shut down except for a few offices, but Reg shakes hands with the security guard, then ushers us through to the State’s Senate floor, where he allows us to take pictures of ourselves brandishing the gavel. Before the last election, Reg explains, he was a Democratic state representative, serving as one of the 150 in this state. That was his job for a while, he says; now he has another one. His modest attitude is in profound contrast to the power-chasing world of DC.

Vermont’s biggest utility company, Green Mountain Power, is also pleasingly atypical. Its offices are open plan, with nuts and berries available free to pick at. The CEO sits out as openly as the rest of her staff, just to the side of the raisins. Towards the back of the room, a woman conducts a phone meeting while jogging on a treadmill. The walls are decorated in green, with infographic warnings of the impact of climate change. Its layout reminds me of the Greenpeace offices in Islington, except they don’t offer free berries.

I wander out of my hotel to get a sandwich and find a supermarket powered by solar panels. Its car park boasts at least four EV charging points. Inside, it sells quinoa and African stews (its clientele is universally white). A poster on the wall advertises a yoga day in celebration of solar power, advising you not to forget to bring your mat. We are emphatically not in Kansas any more.

I confess that  I hadn’t particularly wanted to come here. I knew already that Vermont was strong on all things green. I wanted to visit a Red state, where I could learn about social and economic opposition to climate change action. Instead, I got solar yoga.

What happens when green policy is people-led
But I can see, in this hyper-progressive state, what happens when the public and local businesses push those in power on green policy and experiment with what works and what doesn’t: what happens if an energy efficiency charge is put on all electric bills? What if the dairy industry was also an energy industry? The whole state is basically a giant environmental think tank with a budget of $5 billion.

Most of these ideas don’t originate from politicians. According to one state official, it’s Vermont’s businesses and community groups who come up with them. In fact, the one thing that is typically American round here is the distaste for politics, at least in its national incarnation.

A small windfarm manufacturer, with around 80 employees, curses Washington; the main tax credit for onshore wind hasn’t been renewed, causing a surge and then a pause in orders. Their response has been to focus on the international market and on a particular specialism: measuring technology, exporting to the rest of the world, including to India and China. They are now encountering stop/start policy policy throughout the globe, so have deliberately spread themselves thinly across different territories to weather it.

The Blue Spruce Farm has a similar story.  When, ten years ago, they sought to diversify their dairy farm by adding anaerobic digestion, the government and the major banks assumed it was a prank when they explained it involved producing electricity from poo. But Green Mountain Power understood and helped them out, managing both the project and the bank loan. Without support from the government, they marketed this farm and those that followed suit as ‘cow power’,  helping the local farming community and supporting clean energy. Demand outstripped supply, and only now has the state stepped in, guaranteeing a price for the electricity.

Vermont Energy Investment Corporation has been going since the ‘80s, financing energy efficiency measures for the fuel-poor.  In 2000, it began implementing the funds for that energy efficiency charge on every bill; and, as Efficiency Vermont, they offer every home and business energy efficiency assessment and implementation. Their own literature reckons they’ve implemented $1.6 billion of lifetime savings since they began. Every dollar invested has to reap at least twice that in return. Efficiency measures range from simply fitting LEDs to sorting out a scrappage scheme for snow blowers, using 90 per cent less electricity. Most interestingly, for negawatts fans, they bid their saved electricity into the New England regional forward capacity market; the money made helps to fund their thermal efficiency programmes while also reducing the amount of energy the region to imports from Canada

And Vermont will probably soon be doing a lot more with heat, as a new state law aims to make it easier to get loans for thermal efficiency. People will be able to get their home or business assessed for potential heat savings and then take out a loan to put in measures to achieve them. The loan can be repaid through the savings on your heating bill. Sounds familiar?  I suggested they may want do some reading around on how to lower interest rates before jumping in too deep but, whereas take up of the same offer was an issue in the UK, the public here seem more willing.

Republican-friendly ideas
It’s easy to assume that none of these ideas will work outside the solar yoga utopia of Vermont. But, if you look at the economic impact and downplay the treehugging, it’s easy to see some of these ideas spreading to more Republican climes. Traditional farming spreading its resource market risk beyond the price of cheese into energy; small manufacturers sick of Washington-induced headaches, building their exports to China in response; states not having to import power from their neighbours because they can make less do more. These examples are all Republican-friendly stories. In fact, the far more red-blooded state of Texas has already taken up the negawatts idea. They may have a unique freedom to experiment in Vermont, but all of us can benefit from their discoveries.

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