Town of Middlebury considers CO2-reduction goals

You’ve all heard the expression ‘Think globally and act locally.’ This is the ‘act locally’ part of that. — Richard Hopkins

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials are considering a series of steps for reducing carbon emissions created by municipal operations by 80% during the next 10 years, a game plan that would include converting building heating systems to cold-climate electric heat pumps, and transitioning to electric for town vehicles.

The ideas being considered in Middlebury could be replicated or modified for use in other Vermont towns.

The idea was recently pitched to the selectboard by the Middlebury Energy Committee, led by Howard Widelitz. He and fellow committee member Richard Hopkins outlined a plan specifically calling for:

•  When municipal vehicles and equipment need to be replaced, that Middlebury buy available vehicles that use the least fossil fuels possible. Committee members said the town’s carbon savings could range from 10% to 20% through buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, to 100% through investment in electric vehicles. Hybrid gas/electric vehicles could save 40% in carbon emissions, while plug-in hybrid vehicles would save 70%, according to Hopkins.

•  When it comes to diesel vehicles, reduce engine idling and convert to biodiesel in the short-term, and look into more environmentally sensitive heavy vehicles when they need to be replaced. Also, reduce miles driven and machine-hours worked, to the greatest extent possible.

•  Convert buildings to cold-climate heat pumps or renewable methane as the existing heating systems wear out (assuming 20 years), or when buildings are replaced or rebuilt. In the meantime, invest in energy efficiency and conservation.

It should also be noted that the energy committee earlier this year had urged the town to pursue an 80% reduction in carbon emissions within eight years, but ultimately decided 10 years might be more manageable.

“You’ve all heard the expression ‘Think globally and act locally,’” Hopkins told board members. “This is the ‘act locally’ part of that.”

He likened Middlebury’s conversion to fossil-free technology to what individual families are doing — such as investing in solar panels and hybrid vehicles. Except the town needs to do some heavier lifting, due to its infrastructure and large fleet of vehicles.

“This would be an actionable goal that we’re setting,” Hopkins said.

The payoff to these strategies could be immense, according to Hopkins and Widelitz.

They estimated municipal infrastructure, vehicles and equipment generate around 920 tons of CO2 annually, with 153 tons created by gasoline-powered vehicles; 146 tons by diesel-powered vehicles; 244 tons through heat currently provided through fuel oil, natural gas and/or propane; and 377 tons through electricity supplied by Green Mountain Power. Committee members noted GMP plans to eliminate the CO2 provenance of its electricity by 2030.

Reducing Middlebury’s annual CO2 output by 80% translates to a goal of 723 tons. Officials believe the town could incrementally achieve that goal by 2030 through reducing diesel consumption by 95% (139 tons of CO2); reducing gas consumption by 40% (61 tons); implementing greener technology for heating buildings (139 tons); and saving another 377 tons when GMP has achieved its conversion to fossil-fuel-free electricity.

Committee members offered the following replacement schedule for heating systems in the town buildings: the Ilsley Library, police station and wastewater treatment plant, all in 2022; the pool house and Addison Central Teens Center in 2025; the two fire stations in 2032; the recreation center and the public works building in 2036.

Two of the wastewater treatment buildings could be heated using methane gas generated by the plant’s anaerobic digestion system, they argued.

Energy committee officials consulted with municipal department heads as they put together their plan. The panel would help the town transition to new environmentally sensitive heating systems and vehicles and monitor Middlebury’s carbon busting progress on an annual basis.

“We’re not experts on vehicles and buildings,” said Hopkins, a retired epidemiologist. “We’re just motivated citizens who are trying to be informed and want to contribute to the process in a proactive way.”

Proponents of the panel’s “80% CO2 reduction by 2030” plan acknowledged the expense of converting to more environmentally friendly technology. But they noted cost benefits following conversion, as well as freedom from the volatility of fossil fuel prices.

COST OF REPLACEMENT

Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter considered the potential conversion costs as he praised the energy committee for its work.

“I look at this and wonder how we can quantify what those additional costs are, replacing major systems,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of great work here, I’m just not sure I’m personally ready to vote on it. I don’t know if our diesel-burning equipment is cleared for biodiesel, for instance.”

Selectman Dan Brown said he believes the committee’s recommendations could save the community money in the long term. He noted his family had recently seen savings from its conversion to a hybrid vehicle, solar panels and a new heating system.

“These are all logical, easy steps that any business should take, and we are a business,” he said of the town.

Brown suggested, “It would be a good idea at some time to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if we’re going to do this. If it’s not 80%, maybe it’s 50%. I really like their plan and think we owe it to make some kind of decision on this at some point.”

Selectwoman Lindsey Fuentes-George was emphatic in her support.

“What I really like about this plan is it takes out the ambiguity,” she said. “Climate change is one of those situations where everything needs to happen right now, and needed to happen 10 years ago. It’s hard to quantify how much you’re moving forward. So I like the fact that this plan lays out a path forward and different routes to get there in a pragmatic way. So even if we set a goal and don’t quite achieve it, we can still quantify how much progress we’re making. I’m in favor of setting a goal.”

Selectman Victor Nuovo agreed.

“I think there’s no question we have to move in this direction,” he said, adding town staff could play a role in the transition.

“What (Hopkins) has shown is there is a rational path toward reduction of carbon emissions,” he added. “I think it’s imperative we move in that direction.”

In the end, the board agreed to give town staff and the Middlebury Infrastructure Committee time take a closer look at the proposed schedule and overall timeframe for meeting the proposed 80% target and report back in early December, with a selectboard decision by the end of the year.

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