Climate Action Conference: The 2015 CAT Report

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On December 12, 2015, the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club convened the Maine Grassroots Climate Action Conference at the University of Maine in Augusta. This was their second climate conference; the first was held in December of 2014 at Bowdoin College. At the first conference, a number of local, climate action teams (or CAT’s) were established. In the past year, CAT’s around the state have taken actions such as establishing solarize programs, instituting plastic bag bans and more.

Glen Brand, Director of the Sierra Club’s Maine Chapter, kicked off the day by introducing the keynote speaker, Shenna Bellows. Green Energy Maine was there and brings you this full report.

Shenna Bellows addresses the Maine grassroots climate action conference photo by Kay MannKEYNOTE ADDRESS BY SHENNA BELLOWS

On this day in Paris, climate change activists from all over the world are engaged in a huge action march to the Eiffel Tower, all dressed red to represent the red line that we cannot cross if our planet is to remain inhabitable.

Globally, 54% of people recognize that climate change is harmful and 51% believe that harmful effects of climate change are happening already. Bellows quoted a speaker who said that without hope, people are more likely to hunker down and give up than they are to rise up and effect change. There is a great sense of collective despair these days, not only about climate change but on a wide range of issues.

At last year’s conference, we talked about community solar power and solar gardens. We also launched the climate action teams which have formed in many different communities in Maine. These small groups have made large strides in the past year. Portland is on the verge of a massive community solar installation. Funding has been passed for a passenger rail connection from Portland to Lewiston-Auburn. Bellows read a series of news headlines from each month in 2015 reporting on accomplishments of the CATs.

Bellows emphasized that the actions made by small, local groups do make a difference and encouraged attendees to continue and increase these efforts. Leadership from the people creates political will in our elected leaders. A cultural change is what is needed.

Scott Vlaun of the Center for an ecology based economy photo by Kay MannSESSION I: A COMMUNITY ACTION TEAM REPORT FROM NORWAY, MAINE

Scott Vlaun of the Center for an Ecology-Based Economy (or CEBE) described this 3-year-old nonprofit, based in Norway. Thus far, it is a volunteer-based organization which receives project funding.Their focus is on building sustainable systems for food, shelter, energy and transportation in a wholistic way by building partnerships with local organizations.

Vlaun began with some background into on why the group was formed, including resource offered by Senator Angus King, which he calls, “climate change in a nutshell”, a downloadable business card with graphs showing atmospheric carbon correlated with temperature rise over the past centuries.

Downtown Norway has had a “Weary Club” since 1874, where they have kept track of ice out dates on Lake Penneewassee every year since that year. When it was started, ice out dates were in May. In 2012, the ice went out on March 23. Vlaun also showed a graph relating world oil extraction to climate data. He quoted CEBE member and peak oil author John Howe as saying that “peak oil is going to kill us before climate change does”. He foresees a “hunger gap” caused by the over-dependence of fossil fuels to produce and deliver foods to market. In the USA, approximately 900 gallons of oil are burned per person each year; 400 of those are burned to meet our food needs.

With all this as a backdrop, Vlaun described the following four projects which CEBE has put into action in Norway, Maine:

COMMUNITY BIKE SHARE

The Police department has a warehouse of used/stolen bikes that were donated for this project. Volunteers are learning the skill of bike repair through skill sharing and they have been rehabbing these bikes for public use. The bikes are painted a loud green, have milk crates on the back and are kept on a rack outside the CEBE center. People sign up to use them and sign a waiver before using them. CEBE staff noticed that there is some initial hesitation before people will come in an ask to use them. Norway has a lot of Section 8 (publicly funded) housing downtown; people living there are often using the bikes to apply for jobs or to go shopping at Hannaford or Walmart. Some people use them for exercise. They are “klunkers” rather than the racing type of bikes and they change the way people think about bicycles. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine is a contributing partner for this project. Because helmets can’t be loaned out, users are encouraged to bring their own. Wearing helmets is not required and this keeps the usage high; most riders refuse to wear them. There have been no serious accidents; most travel is at low speeds, right downtown. There are 80 riders signed up overall to use the bikes.

ELECTRIC VEHICLE CHARGER

Norway just beat South Portland to have the first free, public electric vehicle (or EV) charger in their town. The town pays for the electricity in this level 2 charger. To unveil it, they held an electric vehicle expo day with lots of EV’s for people to see and test drive. Speakers came from major organizations; there was even a solar tractor. There is a plan to eventually install solar panels in the town square to charge the charger. The local bike shop also sells electric bicycles. Vlaun rides one and says they make a difference in performance, such as the ability to carry more weight and ride further, even in hiking boots.

An audience member added that in Cumberland, 20% of the town’s carbon footprint has been found to be caused by people commuting to the schools. They are thinking of putting in a free EV charger at the schools to encourage EV usage.

HEALTHY OXFORD HILLS: EDIBLE MAIN STREET

The third project CEBE has taken on is to set up edible planters along Main St. The wooden planters are built so that each holds one straw bale in the bottom; these are soaked with water to provide a source of fertility. A strip of cardboard separates the straw from the soil on top.The planters were delivered to their spots by bike trailers.The project was done with collaboration from 6 other organizations, including Snap-Ed. Herbs, edible flowers and greens were grown for all to graze upon. Based on the first year’s experience, CEBE recommends growing from transplants rather than from seeds. They had to be replanted midseason as they became depleted. People loved them universally. At the end of the season, the remaining materials were taken to the next project to create compost:

COMMUNITY FOOD FOREST

This is a perennial agriculture demonstration project. The initial visioning sessions were attended by about 70 people. An existing half-acre site that was very overgrown was transformed into an edible forest by saving the existing plants that could feed people and adding perennial, edible plants to replace non-edible ones. Bio-remediated land that was considered “junk” before was covered with cardboard, then good soil was put on top. Trees were planted and cover crops were interspersed.  The understory was planted in between larger plants.

The concept is one of layering; called perennial polyculture. You create “guilds” of plant species that work well together. Energy/work inputs are minimized; heavier at the outset and reduced over time. Perennials maximize solstice sun and sequester carbon in the plants and soil. This is called, “extreme carbon farming”.

On interesting plant they used is the autumn olive. It is loved by the permaculturists even though it is one of the most invasive plants. The fruits are superfoods that can be cooked down into jams, etc. 

The plan is to scale this project up. There is 40,000 acres of farmland in the service area of CEBE. The local land trust is buying it up slowly with the vision to convert it to permaculture. Project partners are the Roberts Instate for Regenerative Agriculture and the John Longley MakerSpace. There is a microsite about it on the CEBE website. http://ecologybasedeconomy.org/food-forest.html

Lyn Zudlow of the Scope Energy Alliance climate action team photo by Kay MannSESSION II: ENERGY EFFICIENCY

The first presenter in this session was Lyn Sudlow of the Scope Energy Alliance CAT.

Buildings use about 40% of the fossil fuels we consume and 70% of the power generated in power plants. So, tightening up our homes through weatherization can serve to reduce both energy needs and carbon emissions. 

Sudlow mentioned some past projects including the 2007 Maine Partners for Cool Communities report and the Green Sneakers project, organized by the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, which worked from southern Maine through the midcoast to reduce fossil fuel usage through greater home efficiency. This project has now been transformed into the CAT teams. Sudlow pointed to a number of informational resources that are still available to homeowners to help them become more efficient; many are available through the Sierra Club.

The second presenter on efficiency was Nancy Chandler of the Phippsburg CAT.

Maine has a high percentage of older people in older homes. These homes are largely heated with oil and this has caused 5 billion to leave the Maine economy each year.

Under the direction of Professor Mick Wormley, Unity College did a survey of local homes to determine how much energy is being lost by each home in the community. People were surprised to learn that they could save million of dollars each year by tightening up their homes. This project inspired one like it in Phippsburg, using Efficiency Maine funding. Efficiency Maine’s programs work well for middle income people but in Phippsburg, there are a lot of lower income residents. 

The Phippsburg CAT identified the households that met low income guidelines (<$40,000 per year) and wrote a grant with help from the Sierra Club to the Maine Grassroots Environmental Fund to fund a home weatherization project to help these families. The community leaders were supportive once they were included in the conversation. The work done has been largely do-it-yourself projects by volunteers, such as making airtight interior storm windows and air sealing around building foundations. Habitat for Humanity contributed materials and up to $200 per house for the window inserts. This is helping people to be both more comfortable and better able to afford their heating bills.

Steve Bolton of 7 rivers habitat for humanity photo by Kay MannThe next to speak was Steve Bolton, Executive Director of the Seven Rivers Affiliate of Habitat Humanity (or H4H)

Bolton began with some history. H4H was not founded by Jimmy Carter; he became involved after his presidency. It was founded back in the 1960’s by Miller Fuller, a millionaire by the age of 29, who then decided to use his money to improve the world. The mission is to eliminate substandard housing throughout the world. In the first 25 years, 100,000 homes were built; then they built 100,00 in the next 5 years; now they build 100,000 houses per year. All projects are conducted locally and there is a homeowner education and involvement piece that ensures these are not just “free houses”.

Maine has the 5th oldest housing stock in the nation and some of the lowest incomes. Much of this housing is substandard, so 8 years ago, some Maine H4H affiliates have branched out their efforts to weatherize homes. To do full energy audits with blower door tests, it costs more than can be found for low income homes. So, these projects have been done by volunteers trained by H4H. Anyone who qualifies for LIHEAP funding also qualifies for weatherizing help from H4H. The candidates are often found by word of mouth; many are reluctant to ask for help.

Bolton made a distinction: weatherizing is different from weatherization. The former refers to low cost improvements such as adding weather stripping and interior storm windows. Other types of work include tightening doors, pipe insulation, installing door sweeps, caulking around windows and sealing plumbing and wire chases.

While these projects do not use blower door tests, for an investment of $250, they can save an average homeowner about $300 per year in heating costs. Cold air normally enters around basement sills and warm air normally exits through attics. Floors, walls and ceilings allow 31% of heat to escape. Bolton handed out copies of a booklet, “Step One: Picking the Low-Hanging Energy Fruit” by Charlie Wing, compliments of Webber Energy Fuels.

Bolton outlined the volunteer training process for this type of project and urged attendees to take part in them. Habitat 7 Rivers also builds interior storm windows for homeowners to help stop air leaks around windows. These last about 5 years.

Gar Friedmann of Bar Harbor Climate Action Team and Susan van Alsenoy of the Wiscasset SunCATs photo by Kay MannSESSION III: SOLAR ON TOWN BUILDINGS

Gary Friedmann of the Bar Harbor Town Council and CAT was the first speaker in this session.

Friedman began by describing the process that Bar Harbor followed to put solar panels on its public works building. The array has a 75 KW capacity and it supplies all of the power needs of the building that it sits on.

This project was first proposed in October of 2013. In 2014, College of the Atlantic students performed an inventory of all town properties with PV potential. The town council was not authorized to enter into lease agreements so the proposal had to go before the town meeting. This was an opportunity to educate the public.  In Autumn 2014 the town looked into the idea of hosting a community solar farm but ultimately decided upon issuing a power purchase agreement (or PPA) to help pay for the solar array. The PPA is an agreement between private investor (in this case, the contractor), the town and Emera Maine (the utility) through a net metering agreement. Under the PPA, the town buys the electricity produced by the solar panels from the installation contractor, who retains ownership of them for the first 6 years. After that time, the town has the option to purchase the equipment at a decreased price.

Friedman listed the following advantages of the PPA:

1) There is no upfront cost to the town.
2) The town pays the same or slightly less for electricity during the first 6 years than it would pay from the utility.
3) With a 6-year budget of $13,000, the town can buy out the system in year 7 and eliminate energy costs for the facility for next 25 years.
4) The for-profit corporation gets a 30% federal tax credit and depreciation
5) The town can work with Revision Energy (the contractor) to manage peak loads during the first 6 years helping the town to save even more money.
6) Using solar power builds in an inflation-proof hedge against future energy price spikes.

Bar Harbor has the first solar PPA in Emera territory (operating as of December 2015), is the first town to sponsor a solar array in Maine and has the first East-West orientated solar system. The advantage of having a western facing array is that the peak load in summer is in the late afternoon. Producing solar power at this time of the day will save the town a lot of money..

The town is also proposing to host a community solar farm (or CSF) on town property as a separate project. The CSF had 3 deposits from potential shareholders at the time of this article. There is also a solarize project planned for 2016 for all 4 towns on Mount Desert Island.

LESSONS LEARNED IN BAR HARBOR

Do your homework before talking to a solar contractor. Learn their lingo.
Inventory town sites. Flat roofs are not ideal as they catch snow.
Economics and public relations matter.
Identify good partners to both contract and finance the project.
Cultivate support on the town council and among town staff.
Educate the community.
Establish short term and long-term goals.
Celebrate successes along the way.

WISCASSET GOES SOLAR

The next speaker was Susan van Alsenoy, co-chair of the Wiscassett SunCATs. This group was formed in January of 2015 and collected 140 signatures to support solar on the town’s buildings under a PPA.They educated both themselves and the public by hosting a lecture by Paul Kando of the Midcoast Green Collaborative in Damariscotta.

The group chose to work toward a solar array using a PPA because the solar system would be installed at no upfront public cost. There is an option to purchase the system from the contractor (Revision Energy) after 7 years at a lower price and also an option to inherit the system for $1 after 20 years. The investor (Revision Energy) takes the 30% federal tax credit which is only available through 2016. The investor gets the rolling credit for the net metered power supply to the grid and then sells the power to the host town under a 20-year contract.

The select board in Wiscasset was not receptive to this idea at first. Van Alsenoy offered a few suggestions for how to approach YOUR town with an idea like this. First, approach the town manager and town planner to get permission to propose to the select board. Going to the planning board is not necessary as there are as yet no ordinances for placement of solar systems that must be followed. Make a clear presentation to the town, outlining costs and benefits.

Revision Energy made the detailed presentation to the select board of Wiscasset. The energy payments made over the first 6 years would be applied to the buyout cost in the 7th year. The town could save over $72,000 over 20 years. Some systems are now being seen lasting as long as 40 years. This would reduce the town’s carbon emissions by 40 tons per year.

The 62 KW solar array is proposed to be placed on the town buildings along Route 1, where the slow-moving tourist traffic would get to admire it.

The Morris Farm, a private farm in Wiscasset already has town approval for a CSF on its land and has recently been approved for the PPA using its barn. The contractor has not been the investor in every PPA solar array established in Maine. In Belfast, Revision Energy found private investors for the system being built on the town landfill. There are now at least 3 contractors who build PPA-scale solar systems in Maine.

SELLING THE RECS

In most group or public solar systems, part of the income is gained by selling the renewable energy certificates (or RECs). This means the buyer of the RECs and not the system owner, gets the right to claim the use of renewable solar power. In the first 6-7 years of a PPA, the investor will own and can sell the REC’s for the solar power. After that time, it will be up to the system owner (whether the town or the investor) as to who has the right to sell the REC’s or not.

OTHER SESSIONS DURING THE DAY

There were a number of other workshops held during this informative day, including:
Solarize Your Town (a residential solar bulk discount program);
Community Solar Farms;
Community Gardens/Sustainaility Education: Composting and Recycling in Schools;
Grassroots Organizing;
Funding Local Action;
Plastic Bag Reduction Programs.

All speaker presentations have now been archived by the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club.

All photos by Kay Mann.

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