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MDI Leads: Energy Independence in Just over a Decade

Paul Kando

Acronyms rob even islands of their romance. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain called Maine’s largest island île des Monts Déserts (island of the Bare Mountains) for its vegetation-free mountaintops spotted first by approaching seafarers, before any other landmark.

Mount Desert Island
photo credit: Mourial

Below those bare-topped mountains, Mount Desert Island (MDI) is alive with progressive 21st century ideas. A Climate To Thrive (ACTT) is a two-year-old nonprofit organization of residents, businesses, and municipalities committed to achieving energy independence for MDI by 2030. It has just completed “Solarizing MDI,” a discount purchase program that’s doubling MDI’s solar generation to 1.3 MW. It has also distributed LED bulbs to cut lighting energy waste, and created programs on composting, local food systems, improving efficiency, moving toward zero waste, developing climate-friendly transportation, and influencing public policy.

On the last Sunday of January more than 250 people came together for ACTT’s annual summit, which featured informative exhibits and over 20 workshops. Josh Castonguay, Chief Innovation Executive of Vermont’s Green Mountain Power Co. (GMP) introduced the workshops with his Keynote address: “Transforming Century-Old Energy Delivery Systems,” that is, to one that relies on numerous distributed resources rather than a few large central generating plants and long transmission lines. Josh highlighted the importance of this transition and explained its challenges and opportunities.

GMP is the first US energy company to become a B corporation, offering customers a plethora of energy services, rather than just selling electricity transmitted over long distances. For example, GMP ratepayers can have Tesla’s Powerwall home battery system installed for a mere $15 per month charged to their electric bills. The New York Times has described GMP as a leader in redesigning the electric system, which is undergoing enormous changes as renewable energy sources become more popular and technologies give customers more control.

The MDI summit’s many workshops invited participants to help with join ACTT’s work projects, like weatherizing at least 75 homes in 2018, and reducing their energy bills by at least 40%. The workshop “Connection, Compassion, and Communion with the Earth” explored the shift in consciousness needed for us to rediscover our place as a part of the whole. “Applying Climate Psychology to Create Positive Change” spotlighted ways people think, act, and feel, enabling participants to plan their actions more successfully.

“Food, Climate Change, Composting, and MDI’s New Farm Drop” explored people’s food choices, where best to acquire those foods, and ideas for regional composting. “MDI’s Path to 100% Solar Energy” challenged participants to find the level of engagement that works for them. And this year’s “Community Outreach Program” goal is to have at least 10 percent of MDI residents reduce their energy use by 10%.

“Rethinking Plastics” addressed the complex problem of plastic waste and what we can do about it. “From Sustainability to Abundance” explored the mindset-change needed to increase our willingness to act. “Driving Electric in Maine” explored the benefits of electric vehicles and their status and infrastructure in Maine. “Solar Energy for Your Home” covered both solar electricity and solar hot water, while “Solar Energy Storage for MDI” zeroed in on energy storage as the key to relying on renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. New battery technology will also make the electric grid more stable, reliable, and resilient.

“Solar Opportunity for Businesses and Farms” is a project of the College of the Atlantic, supported by a USDA Renewable Energy Development Assistance program grant. It provides free solar energy assessments for Hancock County businesses and farms. A similar grant program is also available in Lincoln County.

The “Mount Desert Sustainability Committee”, a citizen advisory committee to the Town of Mount Desert, meets every month to recommend sustainability projects like LED streetlight conversion, a solar array for the Public Works garage, electric vehicle charging stations, recycling, and energy benchmarking.

I am impressed, I remarked to Joe Blotnick, ACTT’s coordinator and chief organizer of the summit. Joe deflected all credit: This could only come together, he said, because enough people from the community came together, including elected town leaders. It all begins with agreeing on an achievable but challenging goal. Then focus on solutions, not problems.

MDI leads. Everywhere at the summit people discussed solutions, not complaints or difficulties. Lead we must, I heard repeatedly, because (1) no one is going to do that for us, (2) our children and grandchildren will suffer undeservedly if we fail, and (3) the solutions are ours to discover and act on.

What about our own Midcoast community? I have no doubt that we too have what it takes.