Food Everywhere: An Urban Orchard in Burlington

Last night I went to the regular meeting of the Burlington Food Council, where food and sustainability organizations from around the Greater Burlington area meet to share information and collaborate on sustainable food projects.

There’s a lot going on in sustainable foods in the Champlain Valley, but the most inspiring topic for me was the Urban Orchard. To give you an idea what I’m talking about, there’s this 13-minute TED talk by Pam Warhurst from Todmorden, England. It’s not only kind of wonderful what they’re doing, but Pam is a lot of fun to listen to, and not just because her accent echoes a couple of the characters from Downton Abbey.

Man, what a great talk. I need to steal some of her slogans, e.g. this one on who can participate: “If you eat, you’re in.”

So anyway, what’s going on in Burlington? Well, the idea is to start introducing food-producing shrubs, trees, and other plants into available green space in the city: parks, lawns of public and commercial buildings, by the road, and anywhere else that the residents of the immediate neighborhood want it. The food is free to anyone who wants it, and residents get involved in maintaining, pruning, and planting on a volunteer basis. This has been so successful in other cities around the world that volunteers end up harvesting thousands of pounds of produce to give away to food banks and shelters, to say nothing of all the free food that’s available to local residents and anyone walking by. The idea of food without a price tag is a little mind-boggling in the present day, but in city after city, it is already working. It’s a wonderful idea.

Since this is Vermont we’re talking about, I say “orchards” and you probably think apples, like I did, but it turns out that apples attract pests like nobody’s business, and that there are a lot of other crops, both ones that are commercially viable and ones that aren’t, that are well-suited to our climate and could be grown instead. This includes garden vegetables and herbs, but also stone fruits like plums and peaches, pear, berries, nuts, and much more.

For instance, consider the slope behind Battery Park. In case you don’t know Burlington, Battery Park is on a high area in the North End overlooking the lake. A steep slope is covered with miscellaneous wild growth kept cut back by the city to maintain the gorgeous view of the waterfront that Battery Park affords. At the bottom of the slope is another park area along with a theater, restaurants, the ECHO center (a lake and science museum), a boat that runs tours around the lake, the bike path, and much more. The city government wants to follow through on a decades-old plan to build staircases down the slope from Battery Park to Waterfront Park, and they’re looking for ideas. One magnificent idea (if you ask me) that was discussed last night is a terraced orchard of fruit and nut trees, fruit shrubs, berries, and other edible foods. Alternatively, another location could become home to a kind of botantical garden of all-edible foods, a Food Forest.

These kind of initiatives beautify the city, attract tourism, help feed local residents and visitors, and create more community connections. They also sequester carbon and lessen dependence on food from distant locations, which also lessens dependence on all of the oil that goes into fertilizing, pest-fighting, transportation, storage, packaging, and marketing. Next to a backyard garden or family farm, food doesn’t get more local than just down the street.

These kinds of plans are just in the exploratory stages right now for Burlington, but maybe you could consider whether there might be an easy way to start getting edible foods into public spaces in your own city or town–or if you’re in our area, maybe you’d like to eventually get involved with this effort. If so, stop by www.localsource.org and join the group there, or watch this space.

Model for Success: How Vermont Towns Can Contribute to the State’s Renewable Energy Portfolio

This guest post is from Jamison Ervin, a member of Waterbury LEAP, the only Vermont town energy committee to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. You may have read my earlier post about Jamie and her family, What One Vermont Family Did to Massively Reduce Their Climate Change Impact. She lives in Duxbury and can be contacted at jervin@sover.net.

A solar installation in Waterbury, from suncommon.com

A solar installation in Waterbury; photo from suncommon.com

The towns of Waterbury and Duxbury are one rooftop away from achieving the goal they established last April: to double residential solar capacity. The increase to 338 residential kilowatts has moved Waterbury and Duxbury into fifth and second places, respectively, for residential solar per capita across all Vermont towns. At the same time, business solar installations have increased nearly 80 percent, to 363 kilowatts.

This means that Waterbury and Duxbury now rank among the top ten towns statewide for total per capita solar production.

What has driven this progress? As predicted by the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, four factors are critical — public outreach, technological advances, innovative financing options and favorable public policies.

To educate the public, Waterbury LEAP (Local Energy Action Partnership), the energy committee serving both towns, holds an energy fair that draws more than 600 people every April. This year, dubbed the  Waterbury/Duxbury Solar Year, we ramped up these efforts to include a summer solar fest with free music, pizza and ice cream; radio ads and newspaper articles; brochures, flyers and posters; window displays; farmers’ market booths; open houses; and direct outreach to businesses, select boards, school boards and schools.

You name it, we tried it.

We are not certain that we can claim credit for any of this year’s installations. But we do know that most residents in our town have heard about the benefits of installing solar panels — increased savings on electricity, decreased carbon emissions, more local jobs and greater energy independence.

The second critical factor is the improvement in technology. The efficiency of solar panels has increased dramatically. Some of today’s panels can generate twice as many watts compared to those of only a few years ago — and the price of solar panels has decreased by half. Solar installation companies and their customers both have benefitted from this improved technology.

The availability of innovative finance options is also a key factor driving the growth of solar capacity. For example, the Vermont State Employee Credit Union has a new low-interest solar loan allowing homeowners to finance the cost of solar at reasonable rates. And SunCommon, a new solar installer in Waterbury responsible for 23 of the 30 new installations in Waterbury and Duxbury, has a lease model wherein homeowners install solar panels with no money down, at monthly costs equivalent to or less than their electric bills.

Green Lantern, a Waterbury-based green investment company, has created a solar tax-equity fund that allowed the owners of Cold Hollow Cider Mill to install a 149-kilowatt array — saving them more than $2,000 annually in electric bills, without any up-front costs.

The fourth factor is a favorable policy environment. Virtually everyone who installed solar panels in 2012 took advantage, either directly or indirectly, of the 30 percent federal tax credit. Most businesses were also able to depreciate their solar investment over 5 years instead of 30, leading to a much faster payback period.

On top of this, most customers who installed solar panels received a state rebate of 55 cents per watt, as well as a sales tax exemption.

In addition, all Vermont electric companies are required to purchase up to 100 percent of the solar-generated power produced by their customers at 20 cents per kilowatt hour — even if they sell electricity at a lower rate, which most do.

How does this local success story fit into the broader context of local and state energy consumption and production? Since Waterbury consumes some 58,000 megawatt hours annually, the town’s 589 kilowatts of solar power provide less than 1 percent of Waterbury’s total electricity needs.

The state’s goal, as articulated in the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, is for Vermont to switch from its current use of 23 percent renewables to 90 percent by 2050.

Even with electricity companies adding renewable energy to their portfolio, towns will have to shoulder some of the burden of contributing to this goal. That means we must radically increase the number of residential, municipal and business solar installations statewide.

Four policy changes could make this happen. First, allow homeowners and businesses to sell back excess energy to the grid at wholesale rates, above and beyond their own electricity consumption. This step, which allowed Germany to become the global solar leader, encourages homeowners and businesses to add extra panels to their arrays because they are virtually guaranteed a modest but reliable return on investment.

Second, help subsidize the cost of upgrading outdated electric lines. South-facing roofs and open fields are in limited supply. Investors in large arrays of 150 kilowatts or more should not have to bear the burden of upgrading electricity lines, simply by accident of geography. Renewable energy should be considered a public good, and we should subsidize the full cost accordingly.

Third, simplify and streamline current permitting processes. Raise the residential permitting threshold of 10 kilowatts to allow larger residential arrays. Streamline the Section 248 process, which is triggered by arrays of 150 kilowatts and larger. Allow arrays of larger than 500 kilowatts to sell their excess energy back to the grid. And raise the cap of 4 percent for companies to purchase solar energy from their customers. These changes would help bring larger and more systems online faster.

Finally, towns should be proactive in identifying potential sites for large solar installations in their town plans and should encourage municipal, business, residential and school solar installations.

With these modest policy changes, Vermont’s role as a national leader in renewable energy would be secured — and we might even achieve our ambitious energy goals.