There was plenty of sunshine on Wednesday when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., paid a visit to Duxbury to address the world’s changing climate and tout renewable energy at schools.
Standing before the ground-mounted solar array on the campus of Crossett Brook Middle School, Sanders discussed the Sustainable Energy Initiative for Vermont Schools and Public Buildings, a program to use federal funding to help install more solar and renewable energy systems on the K-12 campuses and other public buildings around the state.
“Right now, we have an opportunity to learn from successful projects like the solar array at Crossett Brook, and help schools and public buildings throughout the state significantly decrease their energy costs,” Sanders said.
In his role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sanders said that he’s directed several projects through the subcommittee process where they have received initial approval. This included one proposal to bring $1 million to the state through the Vermont Public Service Department in order to establish sustainable energy projects at elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as state and municipal buildings.
“This funding can bring real, positive change to the state,” Sanders said. “It’s simple: the future of our planet is at stake. We must address the threat of climate change and I know Vermont can lead the way to building a clean, affordable, renewable energy system.”
Sanders estimated that 10 to 15 schools will receive grants as a result of the program. “It will mean a significant reduction in their electric bill. And a significant reduction in carbon emissions,” he said, introducing Crossett Brook Principal Tom Drake who went on to describe how the solar installation has benefitted the school as a facility and as an educational tool.
Crossett Brook Middle School in 2010 was one of 10 schools awarded $50,000 in federal funding secured by Sanders to install solar. The solar 136 kilowatt array generates the equivalent of roughly one-third of the school’s electrical power, according to school officials, reducing utility costs while also serving as an important part of the school’s sustainability curriculum.
Sanders’ message didn’t just focus on solar projects at schools. He called attention to climate change occurring around the world and the need for countries to act to reduce carbon emissions to slow the detrimental impacts on the environment.
“We do not have a choice. The science is clear. The debate is over. If we do not transform our energy systems away from fossil fuel into energy efficiency and sustainable energy, the planet we will be leaving our kids, grandchildren, and future generations will be increasingly uninhabitable and unhealthy,” Sanders said.
Sanders said he hopes the debate over climate change will shift away from politics as people around the world experience the impacts of a changing climate. “More and more people understand the severity of this crisis. And our job right now is to just do everything we can to educate all Americans regardless of their politics about the need to act very boldly and aggressively. And to point out the positive aspect of transforming our energy system which is going to create millions of good paying jobs.” he said.
Also joining Sanders were SunCommon solar energy company co-founder Duane Peterson, and Duncan McDougall, chair of Waterbury Local Energy Action Partnership – known in short as LEAP – which is both a nonprofit energy efficiency advocacy organization and Waterbury’s local volunteer energy committee.
Peterson thanked Sanders for advocating for renewable energy and working to direct federal funds to support solar initiatives to address climate change. He noted that with 210 employees now, Waterbury-based SunCommon is Vermont’s largest provider of solar power projects and the array at the middle school was one of its earliest. “SunCommon was proud to build this project,” Peterson said, noting that at the time, it was the largest school solar project in the state. “And now many other schools across Vermont will go solar with this federal support from Sen. Sanders – that’s fantastic – as we accelerate replacing the dirty power that’s fouling our Earth.”
McDougall noted how the benefits of the Crossett Brook solar project ripple through the community. “When CBMS put solar on its roof and in its field, the projects helped produce local, clean energy. It supported local, good-paying jobs. It saved our taxpayers money, and most importantly, for the past decade it has served as a vital educational tool that allows local students to study renewable energy firsthand,” McDougall said.
A parent of a Crossett Brook alumnus, McDougall explained how a monitor inside the front entrance of the school shows how much energy is being produced in real time. “There is a solar walk with information boards so kids can learn how solar works,” he said. “And students use the data produced by the arrays for class projects, some of which are highlighted at the LEAP Energy Fest held at Crossett Brook Middle School each April.”
The speakers all agreed that it’s important to locate renewable energy systems such as Crossett Brook’s solar array at schools in order to show young people that renewable energy is attainable now. Peterson said that it’s critical for students to see “visible evidence that we’re repowering our economy with clean energy that actually saves money,” he said.
The previous evening at a meeting of the Harwood Union School Board, school officials reviewed a presentation for major renovations to Harwood Union High School and an expansion at Crossett Brook. When a board member asked if plans for a new roof atop the high school might include a solar installation, the answer was no, designs don’t call for any new renewable energy. Both Peterson and McDougall said they would like to see the project incorporate solar into the design.
‘The future of the world is at stake’
Sanders said efforts to expand renewable energy have two key goals: addressing climate change while also creating scores of new good-paying jobs. “We are talking about sustainable energy. We are also going to invest very significantly in energy efficiency, in transportation, in agriculture. As we transform our nation’s energy system away from dirty fossil fuels to energy efficiency and sustainable energy, do not forget that there will be enormous economic gain from that in terms of millions of good paying jobs,” Sanders said.
And making that switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, no longer is a goal for future generations to attain, Sanders said. Scientists calling for change say time is running out to change course before irreversible change occurs to the climate.
Sanders pointed to wildfires in the Western U.S. and Siberia, flooding in Germany and Belgium, extreme heat in Southern Europe. “We’re seeing the smoke coming from Oregon 3,000 miles away impacting air quality in the state of Vermont… Recently Italy experienced the hottest European day ever. July has been the hottest July ever recorded. Droughts and extreme weather disturbances are impacting food production in the United States and all over the world,” he said.
These phenomena, Sanders said, “will only get worse if we do not get our act together in a very, very aggressive way.” He pointed to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “What they said is that we have a handful of years – five, six, seven years – to cut carbon emissions dramatically all over the world or else there will be irreparable damage done to the United States and countries all over the world.”
Vermont needs to be ready, Sanders said, for an infusion of federal funding intended for projects to cut carbon emissions. The $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill Sanders is working on as Senate Budget Committee chair will contain “hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars” aimed at climate action, Sanders said.
The bill will invest significantly in transportation, weatherization, energy efficiency, sustainable energy to help the United States lead the world in transforming our energy system. “So you ask me what do I want?” he said in answering a reporter’s question. “I want to see a great increase in solar. I want to see an increase in wind, in energy efficiency, in weatherization, in transportation, in agriculture. You’ve got to check every box. The future of the world is at stake,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ press conference at Crossett Brook happened just ahead of an online climate town meeting with Vermont municipal energy committee members. Sanders praised the local groups for their efforts to increase public awareness of energy efficiency and sustainable energy options.
“The good work that Duncan and our town energy committees are doing all across the state, this is grassroots, and at the end of the day, that’s what we need,” Sanders said.
State lawmakers are expecting a report from a special climate council that will be used to inform legislation in the 2022 session. When asked what his message is for state government leaders looking to address climate change, Sanders said, “I just have to say it again and again and again. What leading scientists tell us is that we have a handful of years. Every month counts. Every week counts,” he said. “I would hope that this small state leads the nation in terms of transforming our energy system.
That will mean being ready to put federal dollars to work as soon as they make it to Vermont, Sanders said. “The money, with a little bit of luck, will be coming. So I hope the state will lead the country in being creative and smart about how those funds are used.”