BRATTLEBORO — With Select Board members unable to reach consensus or enough support for a majority vote during a sometimes tense meeting, town staff will be gathering more information about how to approach investing in Cow Power.
Brattleboro Energy Committee Chairman Oscar Heller described the Green Mountain Power program as one in which “anyone can buy into, even just regular users, and it essentially pays local farmers to set up systems that allow them to convert methane on their farms into electricity using various digestors and stuff that I don’t fully understand.”
“It’s essentially 100 percent renewable in the best sense without the caveats that something like hydropower might have,” he said at the board meeting held remotely Tuesday. “It’s money going to local farmers and it’s in the region.”
The committee unanimously agreed to recommend the town purchase 37 percent of its electricity every year through Cow Power, which would cost 4 cents more per kilowatt. Looking at 2019 usage, that would be an extra $42,000.
“The reason it’s 37 percent is because Green Mountain Power’s current mix of electricity is about 63 percent renewable already,” Heller said. “It’s mostly hydro with a little bit of solar. The math doesn’t exactly work out but it’s pretty close and if we bought 37 percent of our electricity through this program, the town’s electricity would essentially be 100 percent renewable.”
Django Grace, a committee member, said the investment would “give the town a lot of clout so to speak,” inspire citizens to make decisions with an eye toward sustainability and support agriculture.
Part of the discussion focused on a positive vote on a town-wide ballot question from 2018 to ask the municipality to commit to having new and renovated town buildings use 100 percent renewable energy among other things, and a nonbinding resolution passed under other business at the end of annual Representative Town Meeting in 2018 encouraging the municipality to buy all of its electricity through renewable sources such as Cow Power. Select Board member Daniel Quipp, and climate action groups 350Vermont and 350 Brattleboro brought forward the first, and Kurt Daims and his group Brattleboro Common Sense proposed the second.
On Tuesday, Board Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin called the committee’s recommendation a “huge investment” that is much larger than what was called for in the town-wide vote.
“Somewhere we went from new and renovated town buildings to all of the municipal electricity and in doing so we have this out of scale investment in Cow Power in Brattleboro, which I’m not sure the taxpayers and voters of Brattleboro bought into,” she said.
During the same online meeting, Daims was muted by Select Board Chairman Tim Wessel via Zoom controls for making what were described as direct verbal attacks.
“What’s aggravating me and really scares me is it took so long to get almost nowhere now,” Daims said, adding that McLoughlin “wants to pinch pennies now. And this is a climate emergency we’re talking about ...”
Wessel tried to intervene before Daims said, “Denial comes in many forms and some people are not who they think they are. That’s not to point fingers about this except for at Daniel It’s justice denied. Please, we’ve got to get this going. Can’t we do better?”
As a public figure, Quipp said he accepts the criticism. Daims has expressed disappointment over Quipp not accomplishing more on climate issues since being elected.
Quipp said one of the main reasons he ran for the board was to work on those issues. He used a budgeting calculator to estimate that the proposal would cost him an extra $5 in property taxes a year.
“Cows poop, that’s just going to happen, right? Whether we invest in this or not, that will continue to happen,” Quipp said, explaining how the methane is converted to energy and adding that the proposal would cost the town more money but “we’re going to invest in this renewable way of creating electricity.”
Brattleboro Sustainability Coordinator Stephen Dotson said there aren’t many ways for the town to support in-state energy development.
“This is the most defined one we have access to,” he said, adding that it also “enables farms to cut down on pollution they emit due to cow farms.”
While Dotson called investment in the program “a meaningful step,” he noted that only the town’s electricity would be considered completely renewable and carbon neutral — not all of its energy. He said the Energy Committee is looking at updating heating systems to move the town away from fossil fuels.
If the board goes with the committee’s recommendation, Dotson suggested it could be the largest or one of the largest purchases in Cow Power. At the end of the meeting, he was asked to inquire about whether the town might get a discount for being such a big buyer.
The project was once batted around by town staff about a year ago. When the board decided it would create a sustainability coordinator position, it was considered a project for the new job holder to take on.
Town Manager Peter Elwell said staff members, and now the sustainability coordinator and Energy Committee, were looking at the nonbinding resolution about Cow Power after discussing with the board what they wanted to do about certain items raised at the annual meeting in 2018, but “that doesn’t mean the Select Board needs to pass this.”
“The climate impact of this is real,” board member Ian Goodnow said in support of the recommendation. “Brattleboro should be a leader in this.”
Quipp called it “a bold step.”
“This is a time when we need a bold step,” he said.
Wessel described taking issue with Cow Power for a while, calling it “a very squishy thing” and “very imperfect program.”
“I don’t like Cow Power because I think it’s just a vehicle to say, ‘I’m 100 percent renewable,’” he said.
Wessel supported an idea proposed by Dotson in a related memo to look at hiring a consultant to perform a carbon sequestration inventory of Brattleboro, which he thought would be better aligned with town energy goals. McLoughlin liked that idea and encouraged the board to consider another outlined in the memo, which would lead to the municipality having all its electricity be carbon neutral but not completely renewable and only cost an extra approximately $6,954 each year based on 2019 usage. She also wanted to know what the difference of investment would be between not including lights with buildings. Elwell said a breakdown of lights and buildings in different categories could be brought back to the board without any advocacy for one path or another.
A brief argument ensued between Heller, Wessel and McLoughlin about whether the board was honoring the will of the voters. The two board members said a smaller investment would still follow the wishes.
Heller expressed disappointment with board members for not acting on the proposal. Wessel said the board is strategizing for what’s best for Brattleboro.
Board member Brandie Starr didn’t attend the meeting.