Group Wants MDI to Go Fossil Fuel Free Within 15 Years

Feb 1, 2016

It’s official — the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization has confirmed what other agencies including NASA have said earlier: 2015 was the hottest year on record.

The global surface temperature is 1 degree Celsius above the preindustrial era, which the agency says makes voluntary commitments reached in the Paris climate change talks still possible, but very difficult.

And that’s why some cities and towns are taking action on their own. On Mount Desert Island, the goal is to become fossil fuel free in 15 years.

A week ago Sunday, when most devoted Patriots fans were watching the AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos, more than 200 residents of MDI and beyond were putting their hopes in something else at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor. They were learning how they could embrace practices to reduce their carbon footprint, become energy independent, provide jobs and save money at the same time.

Gary Friedmann is the vice chair of the Bar Harbor Town Council and one of the coordinators of the launch event for A Climate to Thrive.

Last year Bar Harbor adopted Maine’s first municipally owned community solar farm. But Friedmann says there’s plenty more to do, and lots of interest from other communities, so organizers set an ambitious goal.

Gary Friedmann says the 15-year target was developed “partly because we don’t have that much time. And by setting an inspirational goal we felt that it would motivate people and really get them thinking about the steps that could be taken. What we know is that a fossil-free energy picture is financially and technologically viable right now. It’s the social and political climate that needs to change to make that happen.”

One example of where that has occurred is in Hollis, New Hampshire, a small town of about 7,500 not far from Nashua. Hollis has become a leader in energy efficiency, says resident and energy committee chair Venu Rao, despite the fact that it’s a largely conservative town.

“State senators and state assemblymen, they’re all Republicans,” he says. “They’re very fiscally conservative, social conservatives.”

And, says Rao, some of them do not believe that climate change is linked to human activity. But that hasn’t kept Hollis from adopting aggressive conservation measures, including the installation of solar panels for electricity and wood pellet boilers for heating all municipal and school buildings. All this at a savings of $120,000 a year.

Rao says the potential for saving money was what appealed to the town when it first undertook the project five years ago.

“Our message is — we’re not trying to save the world,” he says. “We’re trying to save the money and we’re also appealing to them that we need to live sustainably, that you don’t have to be conservative or Democrat to do that, you know? If you use all the resources and there’s no replenishment, what about our children, children, children?”

Rao was the keynote speaker at A Climate to Thrive, where he urged towns to take advantage of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Portfolio Manager, a software program that allows you to enter specific data about a building — how many square feet it is, how many floors, how much spent on oil each month and the last two years of electrical bills. It processes all this information and provides a baseline for how efficient that building is and how it compares to others of a similar size.

“But that doesn’t tell you what to do with it — so you need to do energy audits,” Rao says. “Energy audits tell you you have problems here, here and here, and also these are the low-hanging fruits. Go do this first. Then you get the action items to go save energy for the building.”

“I think it’s fantastic that we could have a goal of being energy independent,” says Michael Anderson, a resident of Bar Harbor and a member of A Climate to Thrive’s steering committee.

“To me, it doesn’t matter,” Anderson says when asked whether he thinks it will be possible to go truly fossil fuel free in 15 years. “In five or ten years, who knows what the world will look like? But at least we get the satisfaction of trying to make the effort to do the right thing.”

Heidi Welch of West Tremont says MDI has to start somewhere, but she hopes it goes somewhere, too.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to be fossil free but I think minimizing fossil involvement makes sense to do,” she says.

In Hollis, Rao says the police department is now looking to convert all its cruisers to electric vehicles and the town’s energy policies are spurring residents to take action on their own. More than 100 households are expected to convert to solar this year.

Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change is made possible by a grant from the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.