In many ways, Tuesday marked the 43rd birthday of the modern environmental movement. On that day, more than 20 million Americans from all walks of life — and representing philosophies from across the political spectrum — united behind a shared commitment to clean air, clean water and conservation of our planet’s natural resources. The power of Earth Day has grown in the ensuing decades, and it is now widely celebrated as a day for taking action in support of the environment.
In Vermont, we are uniquely positioned to carry out the vision of Earth Day as a day of action. Most Vermonters understand the unique value of our working democracy — and showcase its potentially powerful benefits in their personal and civic actions.
Vermonters have accomplished a lot in their commitment to balancing environmental, economic and energy goals, and their efforts are paying off. Over the last decade, they have taken strides to model sustainability at the local level, and more than half of all Vermont communities now have an energy coordinator or energy committee.
These groups are hard at work every day on projects that have a real and lasting impact on our environment — and people’s pocketbooks: They are installing insulation in municipal buildings, constructing bicycle and walking paths, upgrading streetlights, creating community gardens and teaching schoolchildren about how our energy system works.
At the same time, we have reaped the benefits of our statewide investment in energy efficiency. Since 2000, we have saved Vermonters $775 million by reducing the energy our homes need (saving enough energy to power every home in Vermont for more than two years). This is a major accomplishment that has enabled us to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and helped reduce strain on our electric grid. It also ranks us as a national leader on energy efficiency.
Now for the not-so-good news: Despite all this great work, we are falling far short of what’s needed. Just one example is the fact that we are leaving big money on the table and ignoring the urgency of climate change by heating the outdoors.
The state set a goal aimed at addressing this issue — weatherizing 80,000 homes by 2020 — but we are far, far from meeting it. This is a huge lost opportunity to save more than $1.5 billion in heating costs, create jobs for contractors, and reduce our impact on the environment.
When this is translated to the local level — when we play to our strengths as Vermonters — it’s clear that we can meet that essential goal. All it will take is weatherizing one out of every 33 homes in your town, each year, for the next eight years.
That’s why Efficiency Vermont and the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN) have partnered this year to launch the Vermont Home Energy Challenge. Already, 77 towns from every corner of the state have joined this unprecedented effort — calling on all Vermonters to reach out to their friends and neighbors, and join them in taking real action to reduce their energy usage and costs.
Time and again, our small state has shown that when we work together toward a common goal it makes a big impact. In 2003, a group of committed volunteers and community partners helped convince 96 percent of the households in Poultney to swap their old incandescent bulbs for more efficient lighting. In 2008, Ripton residents visited more than one quarter of the homes in their town to conduct energy assessments and distribute energy-saving products such as low-flow shower heads and programmable thermostats.
More recently, in the small town of West Haven, one out of every five homes signed a pledge card committing to making an energy-saving home improvement as a result of a concerted outreach effort driven by community volunteers.
So far, the Home Energy Challenge is going strong — and if we succeed in meeting our goals, it will make a big difference for the state, and our planet. Each home that participates will save, on average, $740 on their energy bills every year. Together, we will all save more than $2.6 million, and reduce our annual carbon dioxide emissions by more than 7,000 tons — the equivalent of removing 1,300 cars from the road every single year.
As a state, we cannot afford to let those opportunities slip away. Working together, we can protect the things that we all care about — clean air, clean water, our environment — celebrate our communities and share our success – all while making a real and lasting difference.
Paul Markowitz is community energy program manager for Efficiency Vermont. Johanna Miller is energy program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and coordinator for the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network.
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