Business & Economy

Plotting Vermont’s energy future? Atlas literally puts renewables on the map

There’s a new tool in Vermont — the first of its kind in the country — aimed at helping homeowners, energy committees, planners and others identify existing renewable energy projects as well as town-by-town potential for more.

The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, in conjunction with the Vermont Center for Geographic Information and Fountains Spatial, Inc., has launched a Web site that allows users to choose any county or town in Vermont, select from an array of renewable energy options — biomass, efficiency, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind — and get a look at existing projects, as well as an analysis of the potential for new ones. The site, called the Vermont Renewable Energy Atlas, provides an estimate of how much energy could be produced from renewable energy sources in any given area.

“The Atlas will assist town energy committees, the Clean Energy Development Fund and other funders, educators, planners, policy-makers, and businesses in making informed decisions about the planning and implementation of renewable energy in their communities,” said Ellen Kahler, executive director of the VSJF. “Especially with the forthcoming decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, we believe the Atlas will contribute to identifying how much and where efficiency and renewable energy projects can be sited in Vermont.”

Project director Scott Sawyer at the VSJF said the Atlas has been in the works for over a year. It was inspired by the belief that the answer to sustainability is a transition from nonrenewable energy and resource use to sustainable energy plus re-localizing food and energy production.

“We think the combination strengthens the networks of resilience across Vermont’s communities and its economy,” he said. “It makes Vermont a little more robust against some of the challenges that are out there. It’s all about local production for local use.”

Sawyer said that with energy committees in over 90 town and cities, it’s clear that Vermonters want a renewable energy and efficiency based economy. “We designed the Atlas with these town energy committees and many other potential users in mind,” he said. “We believe it’s important to make renewable energy data accessible to everyone, so that businesses, utilities, state agencies, and organizations charged with building the state’s future can make informed renewable energy project decisions.”

Energy committees were the initial target audience, he said. “As far as we’re concerned, these are the people who get it, who are smart and passionate and want to change things in our communities.”

But hopefully lots of people will use the site, including businesses, planners, educational institutions, and policy makers, Sawyer added. “It’s a fun site,” he said. “Here’s a clearing house where we’ve collected a lot of stuff.”

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More Vermonters are interested in finding ways to generate their own renewable supplies of energy, said Johanna Miller at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. The Atlas will provide them with information about what might be possible in their backyards, she said. “It goes from the macro to the micro.”

The site makes it possible for users to check out their own address and get an analysis of what types of renewable energy might work for them.

Miller said she works with a lot of energy committees and community groups who are trying to craft solutions to efficiency, trying to wean themselves off fossil fuels, and the Atlas will help.

“It’s a sophisticated site, but I’d encourage all of us to not see it as a silver bullet,” she said. “It’s a tool. An inventory and analysis tool to inform, to help make decisions on developing renewable power.

“One of the things that VNRC is excited about is that we see it as a great tool to put in the context of planning – how do we access what’s actually out there on the ground and how we want to and can best move projects forward. In many conversations of late, folks have raised interest in a survey or analysis of what’s around them. It’s been useful to be able to point to this Atlas as a tool. It will be interesting to see the degree that communities do use it.”

The Vermont Sustainable Job Fund was created by the state Legislature in 1995 to accelerate the development of Vermont’s green economy through early stage grant funding and technical assistance to entrepreneurs, businesses, farmers, networks and others interested in developing jobs and markets in the green economy.

At the moment, it’s focused on local production and use of biofuels and sustainable forest products, and in strengthening Vermont’s food system. It typically focuses on two or three of the market sectors identified by the Legislature at any one time.

Vermont uses about 700 million gallons of petroleum each year, Sawyer said. “How are we going to solve that problem?”

Oil seed crops are a good idea for farmers because they provide some animal feed as well as a source of fuel, he said. Algae is, at least theoretically, an option that could replace a huge amount of liquid fuel. The Sustainable Job Fund is also looking at grasses, which can be turned into pellets.

“We’ve been looking at forest products for a long time,” Sawyer said. He said Vermont has an opportunity to create a good model for localizing renewable energy production there with forests managed to the highest possible standard.

Major funding for the project was received from the U.S. Department of Energy through Sen. Patrick Leahy, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, and the Vermont Community Foundation.

The site address is www.vtenergyatlas.com.

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Tena Starr

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