A New Dawn for a New Independence?

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Climate Change & Energy

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Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island (MDI), ME, leads the nation in sunlight.  It’s the first place in the United States that the morning sun shines, for the most consecutive days.

So it’s fitting that the people of Mount Desert (yes, it is pronounced dessert) would like to lead the country in another way, too.

“What we’re trying to do on MDI is not only make our island a better place to live, but also set an example for others in the hopes that a movement kicks off across the country for rapid transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy,” says Gary Friedmann, a Bar Harbor town councilor and one of the leaders of the MDI Climate Solutions Group, whose goal is energy independence for the island by 2030.

A National Audience

Friedmann notes that MDI is in a position to lead because of its prominence as a world-class tourist destination with millions of summer visitors. This offers an opportunity to create exponential, nationwide impacts.

“This program is therefore intended to serve the 10,500 year-round inhabitants of Mount Desert Island, as well as summer residents and visitors.” he adds.  The idea of a program that has local support and impact as well as a national reach is part of what attracted the attention of the Grassroots Fund, according to Julia Dundorf, Executive Director at the Fund.

“This is a perfect example of grassroots action catching fire in a community with the potential for real leadership and change,” Dundorf says.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

The effort began in a number of homes around Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, and Southwest Harbor.  After a year or so of potlucks where residents of the island talked about energy, environment, agriculture and solid waste, it became clear, Friedmann says, “we needed to launch this thing beyond our group and see who else on the island would be interested in working on these issues.”

“So we came up with the idea of a project we called A Climate to Thrive (ACT), and our goal is to make the island energy independent in 15 years.”  Why think small?

The group held a kick-off event January 24th at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor, partially funded by a grant from the Grassroots Fund.  The House almost wasn’t big enough: 200 people showed up to spend the afternoon and hear a keynote speaker (Venu Rao, chair of the Hollis, NH, energy committee, another Grassroots funded initiative) and then meet in seven breakout groups “facilitated by members of our planning committee and volunteers.  Those groups covered all the areas that we felt needed attention to achieve our goal,” Friedmann says.

Covering the Bases

Each of the breakout groups—alternative energy, building performance and heating, local food, public policy, solar energy, transportation, and zero waste—had between 20 and 30 participants, and focused on technologies and methods to inform and reach carbon-cutting and energy-reduction goals in each area.  An important consideration is “not reinventing the wheel,” Friedmann notes, adding that ACT is not intended to be a competitor with existing organizations, but to catalyze and facilitate currently operating businesses and nonprofits to work towards the goal of energy independence.

After the breakouts, the whole group reconvened for locally catered supper, music by local musicians, and to hear report-outs from the facilitators.  From there, Friedmann says, the committees have continued to meet and act and “come up with tangible steps we can take towards reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.”

“Members of the zero-waste committee have gotten involved in an effort in Bar Harbor to increase recycling through a Pay-As-You-Throw program,” he says.  “The local foods group is going to be working with teachers and parents to support school gardening and to highlight opportunities for people to get their foods from local farmers.”

Flexing Solar Muscle

Perhaps the alternative energy group has been able to mount the most aggressive agenda so far, initiating a project to assess the solar potential for town and school buildings in the town of Mount Desert, looking at turning an abandoned landfill in the town of Tremont into a solar farm, and working with Revision Energy to develop power-purchase agreements for solar installations on public buildings.

“There’s also a Solarize MDI campaign underway, which would facilitate group purchases of photovoltaic systems for residences and businesses at reduced prices,” Friedmann says, pointing out that the excitement on the island isn’t surprising because of the approach the group has taken.

Green Economy in a Showcase

“We’re presenting this as something that is good not only for the environment, but for the local economy,” he explains.  “There are the jobs created installing solar panels, insulating homes and businesses, and raising local food and that’s all going to result in stimulating our local economy and keeping our dollars on the island and our young people here as well.”

And green is good for business:  “People understand that we are a destination for eco-tourists who come to Acadia National Park and that anything we can do to polish the image of being a green destination is probably good for business,” he says.

And while that aspect of “A Climate to Thrive” may be unique to MDI, the process by which the group is mounting their campaign, the lessons they are learning, and the model they are creating, have important implications.

“Given the political climate in Augusta and Washington,” Friedmann believes, “if we’re really going to make rapid progress toward transforming our energy system, then it’s going to have to be jump started at the local level, which would mean grassroots initiatives like this.”

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