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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

An Energy Optimist: Optimized Energy Lifeboats

The Oxford English dictionary defines “optimize” as “to make the best or most effective use of a situation as possible.”

What choice do we have other than to make the best we can with what we’ve got? Should we not all call ourselves “optimists,” then?

The good news for Vermonters is that we have the potential to survive, even thrive, in the age of energy descent and systemic collapse. We are not overpopulated and our natural resources could support a sustainable steady-state economy, even though we are currently dependent on external resources and economies that could be described as a “house of cards.”

But as the global house of cards teeters, it’s becoming obvious that we need to shed our dependencies and invest in contingency plans. We need to first be clear about our particular resources and opportunities.

  • Vermont is not overpopulated. There are 6.5 million acres of land in Vermont, which equates to 26 acres of land per household. Eighteen of these per-household acres are forested and eight are open farmland. The average household needs less than four acres of farmland to supply their annual food needs. The average Vermont household needs less than 10 acres of forest to sustainably supply all the firewood they need in perpetuity, without the forest shrinking. Consequently, we have twice the farm and forest land we need to sustain our population – meaning there are ample land resources to devote to commercial activities.
  • Vermont has more acres devoted to organic farming, per capita, than any other U.S. state. We have the most evolved local-food movement and we have a growing culture of young people who are getting into sustainable farming, food production, and permaculture.
  • Vermont has highly developed composting infrastructure and productivity.
  • Vermont is the healthiest state in the U.S. according to the “America’s Health Rankings 2008” report.
  • Vermont’s economy has not suffered like other states’; our unemployment is still below 7 percent and Vermont has a higher percentage of its economy devoted to agriculture and manufacturing than most other states.
  • Tourism from urban elites of the East Coast and Montreal will likely continue to bring money into Vermont. Even during a collapse, the rich will need places to recreate.
  • There are an estimated 40,000 wild turkeys and 150,000 deer walking around our woods (according to Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife biologists).
  • Vermont leads the U.S. in efficiency programs and intellectual knowledge regarding biomass energy, renewable energy, and forestry.

However, we have challenges and risks ahead of us. Access to energy is the foundation of any economy, and right now Vermont is almost entirely dependent on imported energy sources such as Canadian hydropower and electricity from natural gas and uranium. And we are totally reliant on fuel oil and propane for winter heating.

Even though we have no in-state fossil-fuel production, we have a lot of untapped potential that could be developed quickly if we reincarnate the culture of innovation and Yankee ingenuity this state was known for in the 1800s.

Here are several proven lifeboat-resources and strategies that are close at hand and simply in need of investment:

  • A transition to wood-fired heating as a bridge strategy to reduce Vermont’s annual fossil-fuel imports would keep $500 million to $700 million in Vermont’s economy. www.SunwoodSystems.com, www.Pellergy.com and many other locally owned Vermont entrepreneurs are ready to provide you an affordable solution if you require an automated furnace instead of a normal woodstove.
  • All Earth Renewables (www.AllEarthRenewables.com,  Williston) and Sunward Solar Hot Water (www.GoSunward.com, Vergennes/Winooski) both offer Vermont-made solar PV and hot water systems, and they both offer affordable financing options.
  • Northern Power Systems (www.NorthernPower.com, Barre), Vermont’s original wind-turbine manufacturer, offers an industry-leading 100kW community wind turbine that is ideal for group net metering and institutional applications. Northern Power recently got a federal grant to develop a 450kW direct-drive turbine based on their unique design, and they installed North America’s largest direct-drive utility-scale wind turbine (2.2 megawatts) in Michigan.  All Earth Renewables makes home/farm-scale wind turbines as well.
  • Avatar Energy out of South Burlington builds small-scale “cow power” systems that make cow dung into odor-free compost and eliminate storm-water runoff and pollution issues while generating large amounts of natural gas to generate electricity.
  • www.CompostPower.org, www.HighfieldsComposting.org, www.VermontCompost.com, Burlington’s Intervale, and many other composting organizations are developing high-value composting networks and processes to keep our farms productive without fossil fuel-derived fertilizers. These organizations are also exploring ways to harvest energy from the composting process, including a successful project to heat a greenhouse with a mound of bark mulch (check out Vermont Compost on Main Street in Montpelier).
  • Biochar-gasification reactors from Victory Gas Works can produce electricity and heat, while making biochar to build up our soils. Turn-key systems can be purchased for less than $5,000 which can generate electricity by gasifying woodchips, at a cost that is lower than today’s retail power rates (www.VictoryGasifier.com and www.GEKGassifier.com).

Micro-hydro diversion systems have enormous potential in Vermont (versus “run of river dams” that block fish flow or hurt river health). The Vermont Renewable Energy Atlas (www.VtEnergyAtlas.com) maps out thousands of feasible micro-hydro sites and provides estimates of their annual kWh productivity based on flow/head.

Vermont has 580 megawatts of large-scale hydropower on the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, which is equivalent to Vermont Yankee’s base-load capacity (at lower cost). Too bad then-Gov. Douglas allowed these U.S. Gen-owned dams to be sold in a bankruptcy proceeding to TransCanada in 2004, without the state attempting to purchase them. We should explore ways for the state, or for in-state entities, to gain ownership.

We have ignored the potential for harvesting fuel wood and/or switch-grass, for pellets, along Vermont’s highways. Ben Falk and others have mapped this out, but where’s the money that’s needed to make this investment?

www.GreenWindMill.com, based in Brattleboro has a patented design for a residential-scale vertical-axis wind-turbine that offers impressive ROI potential. They are looking for investors to bring this to market.

Dear reader, I ask you this: how much money do you have invested in Wall Street casino-capitalism (a.k.a. 401k, IRA, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, derivatives, futures, etc)? Even if the average Vermont household has only $25,000 in these paper-gambling investments, (the average 401k balance across America today is $70,000), that would mean Vermont has a collective liquid resource of $6.2 billion that could instead be invested in Vermont’s re-localized food and energy economy.

Vermont’s innovators and entrepreneurs offer real solutions, but they need financial partners and customers who are willing to invest in a sustainable future. It’s time to walk (or run) the talk.

By: Gaelan Brown
GET Aug2011 page 7

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