By George Harvey
Late last spring, we got word that Phil Swanson, the Municipal Manager of Woodstock, Vermont, had signed a pledge making the town part of the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy movement. Our investigations into what was behind this turned out to be full of stories about delightful projects pursued by people who are outstanding in their respect for each other, the community, and the planet.
Ron Miller, who is active in Sustainable Woodstock, told us, “The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Mansion, part of the National Park System, is all about conservation. Woodstock has three generations of some of the leading conservationists in the United States, who gave it a heritage of conservation.” Sustainability is a tradition in the town, and it goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century.
Barbara Barry, one of Sustainable Woodstock’s founding board members, explained, “George Perkins Marsh is called one of the fathers of conservation. He wrote Man and Nature, a book on conservation published in 1864.” Wikipedia’s entry on the book has this quote: “[He] warned that man could destroy himself and the Earth if we don’t restore and sustain global resources and raise awareness about our actions.”
Marsh’s house in Woodstock was later the property of Frederick Billings, who established a managed forest and a progressive dairy farm in the 1870s. His grand-daughter, Mary Billings Rockefeller, and her husband Laurence Rockefeller, donated the property to the people of the United States in 1992.
There are so many things going on in Woodstock, it is hard to begin describing them. We might start by saying the efforts are largely divided between the people, especially those associated with Sustainable Woodstock, and the town government, which represents them with its own support for the cause.
The Town of Woodstock
Woodstock is an example of a community that is doing just about everything it can to reduce its energy consumption and make sure that as much as possible of what it consumes is generated sustainably from renewable resources. It was able to lead on these matters because of the close cooperation of a fairly large number of citizens, including those who are most heavily involved in the town government.
The Select Board of Woodstock has taken a leading position in the movement to sustainability. Jill Davies, who is a board member, made it clear that the board’s work has been focused on what it can do with town property to reduce waste and carbon emissions, increase efficiency, decrease costs, and provide its own power.
When Phil Swanson, the Municipal Manager, signed onto “Mayors for 100% Clean Energy,” establishing a goal of powering Woodstock entirely with clean and renewable energy, he had the support of both the select board and the citizens who elected it. This is an impressive goal, committing the town to real goals.
A current project for the town is to have a solar array installed. This is being done by Norwich Solar Technologies. The 480-kW DC system will cover about 85% of the municipal electric consumption, including waste water treatment, the town garage, the fire department, the EMS, and the town hall. The project is fully financed and reduces the town’s expenses by amounts increasing each year from a start of about $13,000. It is believed that the town will save $550,000 over the course of the 25 year contract term.
In another project, Efficiency Vermont gave the town some deep energy retrofit grants. The town expects to save 40-50% of energy usage for the town hall, as a result of insulation, replacement window units in existing casings, a new, smaller boiler, and other improvements.
Aside from the municipal government, it seems that nearly all of the organized sustainability efforts of Woodstock has something to do with Sustainable Woodstock, an incorporated non-profit organization. Jill Davies explained the appeal and success of this organization, saying, “Woodstock is a small town, and when we get active, we organize to get things done.”
Zach Ralph, who has been active in Sustainable Woodstock in a number of ways, commented, “The most important part in Woodstock was getting the commitment from the manager and select board.”
The praise for each other extends to outside organizations, as well. Davies spoke of Efficiency Vermont, saying “It’s great working with Efficiency Vermont, because you can update everything and save money on your electricity bills, and they give you a grant to do it.” She added, “They make it easy.”
One of the things that is impressive about Woodstock is the sheer number of people involved in issues of sustainability and resilience. Ron Miller, the acting Chair of Sustainable Woodstock, told us something that might be a key to cooperation. “We avoid controversial or political topics,” he said. “We are not trying to beat people over the head about climate change or what is needed to change the political system. We get support from people who would not stand out as active environmentalists. We don’t advocate that everything has to be solved by government money. Some of us believe that, but it is not our goal.”
Miller also gave some history of Sustainable Woodstock that provided a historical context. The organization formed by combining two earlier movements in 2009. “One event that put us on the map and gained a lot of support was when Irene came through. There was flooding and some people were very much affected. Sustainable Woodstock took a lead in collecting donations and formed a committee to determine where the effort was most needed.” The result was a greatly broadened public support.
Low income households
One of the goals for the Energy Committee has been to reach out to low-income households. Even when people know that the help is available, they often do not know even where to begin doing the research on what they need to do to get it. And this is perhaps most often true of people with low incomes.
“We leveraged private funding with community support and state programs to weatherize homes for low-income families.” Zach Ralph told us. “We do our best to connect people to the programs that can help them best.”
He also said two things worth note. One was, “You don’t have to do everything at once. Take care of the low hanging fruit.” The other, particularly worth noting was, “Maybe you take out a loan for $50 per month, but you could save $75 per month.” Sustainable Woodstock has put special effort into finding ways to prepare people with restricted incomes, living in what is termed “energy poverty,” to get those loans.
The Sustainable Woodstock website (https://www.sustainablewoodstock.org/) has information on a current program for weatherization. It says, “This winter, Sustainable Woodstock is teaming up with Vital Communities, Efficiency Vermont, and local home energy contractors to help residents in Woodstock, Pomfret, and Bridgewater save money and stay warm by weatherizing your home.”
Weatherize Woodstock started a pilot program two years ago. There are many steps to get to weatherization, and the program helps people understand what efforts will be most helpful. It helps them go through the formulas used to calculate household energy usage and compare that to an efficient home. It put together a “Local Weatherization Guide,” which has a lot of information, along with a guide to resources, ranging from contractors and programs. Two organizations considered especially worth mention are Cover Home Repair and SEVCA.
There is interest among the people to work on replacing mobile homes with net-zero housing similar to what Vermod has been building. G.E.T. published an article on such structures in December of 2016, “1st Solar with Storage at A Zero Energy Rental Development!” (http://bit.ly/GET-small-zero-energy)
Woodstock groups have been collaborating with others in nearby communities, particularly those in Vital Communities and its Weatherize Upper Valley program. There are many communities in Vermont and New Hampshire in this organization. Pomfret and Bridgewater are among those that have been working closely with Woodstock.
Clearly, sustainable heating is vitally important. Sustainable Woodstock has been focused on a variety of resources. Air-source heat pumps are being used in the community, of course. Ron Miller also told us that a geothermal heat pump system was put into the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park a couple of months ago.
Scott Nichols of Tarm Biomass® of Orford, NH said that company is working on another project, also at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller site. They are putting in biomass boilers in two buildings there and soon will be heating a third building there as well.
Woodstock has run two solarize projects and plans more. Catamount Solar and Integrity Energy worked on the first campaign, which started in October 2014 and ran through January 2015. Their efforts resulted in 25 homes installing solar power, totaling 165 kilowatts of new renewable energy generation. A second solarize campaign, also successful, came a year later. Barbara Barry and her husband, Michael Pacht took part of it as participants. We are told that more solarize campaigns will probably come along in the future.
In Vermont, 47% of all fossil fuel use is for transportation, making it the single most important issue to face in reducing carbon emissions. It is also thought to be possibly the most difficult to deal with.
Zach Ralph told us that Sustainable Woodstock has been looking into transportation for a few years and has been considering several approaches. Some board members have been exploring ride sharing opportunities. Commercial programs like Uber are one approach, but there may be others that could work well in a small Vermont town.
Another possibility that is starting to be considered is a “village to village” shuttle service. This could be privately funded or could have municipal involvement.
Other ways to approach transportation range from walking and biking to battery powered vehicles. There are many ways to address the transportation issues, and Sustainable Woodstock seems interested in understanding them all.
Agriculture and gardening
Some members of Sustainable Woodstock have taken interest in sustainable agriculture and gardening. According to Ron Miller, the town has two community gardens serving about 40 families. It has also published a local farm and food guide for several years. This effort has also included farm to table education, so people can get the freshest foods possible.
Forestry and carbon sequestration
Zach Ralph said some of the people of Woodstock have taken special interest in forestry and carbon sequestration. This, of course, is very much in line with the thinking of George Perkings Marsh, who started interesting people in sustainability both locally in Woodstock and nationally over 150 years ago. He said, “We have an opportunity to be proactive in managing fossil fuels and carbon emissions. Managing forests to store carbon and create an economy around carbon.”
Sustainable Woodstock has started the “Carbon Work-Study Series,” monthly meetings running from February to August of this year. It has help in this from the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. Barbara Berry told us, “The main goal of the series is to get people in the Woodstock area to understand the benefits of the trees, really talking about carbon sequestration and micro systems. Anybody can participate.” For information, you can visit http://bit.ly/carbon-work-study.
Ron Miller also told us about a land reclamation projected called the East End Development at a site on the Ottauquechee River that had once had a railroad station and a used car lot. In years past, the town had used it to dump snow, which polluted it further. An action group has been working for several years to turn the land into a park. It has also put out a guide for developers who might be interested in this part of the town.
Select Board member Jill Davies may have summed up everything the town is working on saying, “Everything we are doing is for resiliency.”
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