Wilton 'powers up' on Capitol hill

News of Wilton’s extensive clean energy initiatives traveled to Washington as part of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation’s Powering Up America report. The report highlights the story of clean energy revolutions occurring outside of the country’s capital beltway.

The publication finds “that in many cases political conservatives are leading the way in revolutionizing America’s energy habits.”

In order to draw attention to this fact, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), hosted a Capitol Hill briefing to launch the Tremaine Foundation report on Wednesday, July 24. Energy initiatives undertaken in the town of Wilton were part of the briefing that day.

Specifically, the report focuses on American communities where politicians and everyday citizens are moving toward energy-efficient options for both environmental and economic reasons. Three states, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, were featured in the report. In Connecticut, the towns of Wilton, Milford, and Westport were presented as case studies.

Stewart Hudson is president of the New Haven-based Tremaine Foundation, which focuses on the arts, environmental awareness, and work for those with learning disabilities. He said profiling Wilton was an easy decision for the report’s authors, because Fairfield County is such a hotbed of energy revolution.

“What’s wonderful about this part of our state is that there is competition about who is the best energy town,” he said. “Westport is number one in the Neighbor to Neighbor competition, and Weston has done amazing work with their school system. Wilton has a wonderful energy commission, led by Bruce Hampson, who is greatly articulate about the energy plan in Wilton.”

Where there is competition, he said, there is progress.

“There is such a great deal of competition around here, which is a good thing, because all of the towns come out ahead,” Mr. Hudson said.

Additionally, the ability of Wilton Democrats and Republicans to work together and find a middle ground on important issues made the town a great candidate for the Tremaine report, he said.

“What is unique in Wilton, is that the town reflects a strong political base where you have Democrats and Republicans working together,” he said.

Since 2007, Mr. Hampson and the bipartisan Wilton Energy Commission have devised and implemented many small, clean-energy programs.

“From 2007 to the end of calendar year 2012, we worked with the schools and town officials to avoid the cost of energy by reducing the amount of energy used by the town. Over those five years, we avoided $483,000 in energy costs. That’s a documented number, verified by an independent energy service firm.”

It also created the Wilton Go Green program, and managed an energy audit on all municipal campus and library buildings. The building energy audit earned Wilton a $76,000 grant.

“We’ve worked closely with the schools, with Gary Richards and Ken Post, and with First Selectman Bill Brennan. They all made a commitment to take advantage of as many grants, rebates, and programs that CL&P and the state have to offer. In particular, Mr. Brennan has consistently promoted a culture of clean energy and energy efficiency. He’s facilitated a real process of capturing hearts and minds.”

One of the largest arguments of the report, Mr. Hudson said, was recognition that the need for local and state politicians to support clean energy initiatives is no longer a partisan-line issue.

“With higher and higher energy prices,” he said, “and a looming climate change crisis, there are both environmental or economic problems upcoming. Even if you don’t put a huge amount of emphasis on environmental concerns, you still have an economic reason for wanting to support clean energy initiatives.”

As a man with an environmental science background, Mr. Hudson said environmentalists who are truly dedicated to eliminating the effects of climate change need to accept those people who view clean energy as an economic, rather than environmental, necessity.

“A less mature environmentalist would discount people who approach these issues because they see economic benefit,” he said. “A more evolved environmental approach says: ‘we want people who are doing the things that are important, even if in the first instance their reasons are not environmental.’”

Encouraging cooperation between people working toward the same goals, for different reasons, is a large goal of the Tremaine Foundation. The foundation is a family fund whose benefactors “insist on having a politically mainstream approach to every issue we work on,” Mr. Hudson said. “Members of the family are politically diverse, and find a way to move ahead embracing that diversity. That produces a mainstream approach.”

Specific to clean energy work, Mr. Hudson said, “What I’ve found is that mutual respect between people who agree on doing the right thing — despite initial differences for wanting change — will encourage them to learn from one another. There will be more information about leveraging the private sector and the market as social change tools to achieve environmental objectives.”

Wilton’s own elected official, state Senator Toni Boucher, he said, is a great example of a legislator who has united conservative values with clean energy initiatives.

“Sen. Boucher is renowned for being both a conservative, and a conservationist. She has an ability to lead on political platforms, and has the ability to get Wilton to the level of Westport on the level of clean-energy economy.”

Ms. Boucher told The Bulletin that finding a crossroads between commercial and environmental interests is a priority for Connecticut.

“We need partnerships, not adversarial roads to solutions,” she said. “Just like how we solved the 30-year fight over the Route 7 expansion. If you can get the environmentalists together with the developers, there is a middle ground that you can find, and we have to find that.”

Saving the environment’s integrity, she said, is one of the most important things Wilton can do.

“It’s a personal value issue that I always rely on. Preserving our environment is always a conservative issue. It’s a value we all cherish in Wilton because it can be easily eroded and changed if we are not always vigilant,” she said. “If we lose sight of the preservation of the land, air quality, and water quality, we all get hurt. It’s what makes our area such an attractive place to live.”

Though Wilton, with a traditionally wealthy base of taxpayers, has a revenue stream that does not equate to the average American town, Mr. Hudson stressed its lessons are still applicable to other towns. One of the missions of the Power Up America report was to expand local government officials’ knowledge of affordable and subsidized clean energy ideas.

“A large up-front investment is always required to make clean energy work, even when there will be energy savings from those investments,” he said. “One of the things we worked on at the Tremaine Foundation was a new kind of investment plan so that anyone, anywhere, can start clean energy initiatives. Things like the Connecticut Green Bank make money available for people, businesses and governments to make investments in green energy.”

Ms. Boucher echoed the foundation’s finding that clean energy needs to be made affordable to more people throughout Wilton and Connecticut.

“Can we bring technology to the point where it’s affordable and feasible? We need to find a way for clean energy to be affordable to a wider range of people,” she said.

A true energy revolution, Mr. Hudson said, will begin and gain momentum in small towns like Wilton.

“At the local level, legislators cannot escape contact with the public,” he said. “Because of that, they better be able to demonstrate how they are saving taxpayer dollars and reducing the cost of government. This is true of every town, area, and city. It trumps whatever ideological differences may exist on environmental and economic policy.”

Mr. Hampson said that — in the long run — changes made by everyday people in their own homes will add up, if they are given the tools to make those changes.

“The biggest savings over the years will be accomplished by energy awareness,” he said. “Turning lights off when no one is in the space, or turning a thermostat to a reasonable level are examples of being aware of all the different things that relate to energy efficiency. Save your nickels and dimes, and the dollars start adding up.”

Quoting incoming Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, Mr. Hudson noted the Tremaine Foundation believes “to deal with environmental issues in the current century, we don’t always have to say that every environmental problem is saved by creating a rule.”

To view the Tremaine Foundation’s full report on Power Up America, visit poweringupamerica.com.