With a population of 800,000 and an area of 15,374 square kilometres, Vermont does not rank high as a manufacturing and economic powerhouse. But this New England state is working quickly towards becoming a world-class leader in environmental technologies. At the heart of the effort is governor James Douglas, a dry-witted Republican and life-long Vermont bureaucrat. On his off-hours he enjoys hiking behind the state capitol building in Montpelier to breathe in Vermont’s clean air.
“There’s an old fire tower up there, which is nice. I like to get out in the outdoors and away from it all,” he says. In Vermont, this is not difficult to achieve.
To many, Vermont is a pristine state tucked in the US north east best known for cold winters, skiing, white-steeple churches, red barns, black and white cows, and spectacular autumn foliage.
For over 40 years Vermont has enjoyed success in the captive insurance industry. “We are the largest onshore domicile for the industry in the nation,” Mr Douglas explains. “But those in academia and government have wondered what would be the next niche in which Vermont could succeed with its values, natural resources, traditions and environmental ethics.” That industry is environmental technologies.
Anchored by the University of Vermont’s Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), Mr Douglas believes the Green Mountain State could become the Silicon Valley of environmental engineering firms. VCET offers selected early-stage businesses incubator services as well as added value through its association with the University of Vermont (UVM) and its other institutions of higher education. One company already succeeding at VCET is ElectroCell Technologies.
ElectroCell Technologies of Colchester, Vermont, has developed a proprietary, patented technology that addresses one of Vermont’s key environmental hazards: waste from farm animals, cows in particular. The technology was developed in Israel and licensed in North America to ElectroCell Technologies.
In April, Green Mountain Power and UVM announced a partnership to demonstrate ElectroCell’s technology that treats manure from a farmer’s pit with an electrical charge, resulting in a reduction of phosphorus and other nutrients and nearly eliminating odour. Green Mountain Power is purchasing the mobile unit from ElectroCell to make it available to farm customers to help them comply with stricter state and federal regulatory run-off reduction requirements.
Beyond that, larger dairy farms in Vermont are beginning to produce electricity by burning the waste methane gas produced by the cow manure. Blue Spruce Farm of Bridport, with its 2000 dairy cows, is able to produce enough electricity for 500 homes for Central Vermont Public Service Cow Power™, a first-in-the-nation programme directly linking energy customers, farm generation and the environment.
Muck and brass
Mr Douglas is especially proud of Blue Spruce Farm. Such projects dovetail with his Clean and Clear Action Plan.
“On farms, there is another important objective,” he says. “That is to capture manure so that it does not run off into our streams and lakes. This has become an urgent need with the average herd size continuing to grow because of economies of scale.”
Mr Douglas is also keen to introduce climate change initiatives in his state. Within only 14 months of taking office, Vermont developed a comprehensive plan to reduce pollution, while simultaneously saving money and creating market demand for environmentally preferable products — especially those made in Vermont. His Greenhouse Gas Emissions Initiative purports to reduce emissions around the region.
Consequently, the state government has adopted a fleet management policy for state vehicles.
“We also now utilise energy efficient lighting, appliances and equipment in our buildings,” he adds. “We have two state buildings with geothermal heating systems: the Bennington state office building and the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Center.”
In fact, Vermont’s Senate Natural Resources Committee recently endorsed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), an approach that has already been approved by the Vermont House of Representatives.
“This is an important bill that reaffirms an agreement I signed on December 5, 2005,” says Mr Douglas. “It will help Vermont maintain its status as a greenhouse gas reduction leader. When enacted into law, Vermont will be the first state among the seven RGGI states [Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont] – and, as a result, in the nation – to resolve the issue of how to manage carbon dioxide emissions allowances, or credits, and the revenues that flow from them.
“Vermont currently emits relatively low levels of greenhouse gasses. Our ability to make a meaningful difference in this area depends upon our ability to influence the actions of others.”
With additional clear air and water efforts taking place around the state, Vermont has already earned the title the Green Valley. A number of companies, such as Northern Power Systems and Draker Solar, are also involved in harnessing wind and solar energy.
Vermont is not without problems, however. One of its largest is its workforce. Vermont has enjoyed great success in creating new jobs, but filling them is another matter. “In fact, we are up 10,000 jobs, family income is up, and the poverty rate down,” reports Mr Douglas. “We are the only state in New England that can make these claims. However, employers are coming to me concerned that they cannot find enough people to fill the new jobs.”
Vermont’s demographic trend is troubling. “We have fewer kids than we used to and we need to keep them here,” he says. “Vermont is safe, clean, rural, and offers the purest air in New England.”
To retain its college population upon graduation, Mr Douglas has proposed a Vermont Promise Scholarship programme in which Vermont students would be offered scholarships that require them to stay in Vermont for three years after graduating. “If they do not, half of the scholarship turns into a loan,” he states.
Another issue is affordable housing. “I am trying to make sure Vermont remains an affordable place for people to live,” he says.
World trade is a major factor impacting the state’s economy and one on which Mr Douglas focuses. Last year, exports rose 29%. IBM, the state’s largest employer, was a major contributor. IBM operates a large plant in Essex Junction where it is one of the world’s top producers of semiconductor technology. The Vermont site is part of IBM Microelectronics. IBM Microelectronics is located in multiple countries with Burlington being the division’s main office.
High technology excels in Vermont. Mr Douglas points to the north west where Vermont Precision Tools makes gauges that measure surgical instruments.
“The company’s major competitors are in China,” Mr Douglas says. “But surgeons want quality and we provide it. Companies are willing to pay more for the quality workmanship.”
Two of Vermont’s best advantages are its natural resources and location on the Canadian border.
“Quebec, which is 12 times our size, is our largest trading partner,” he says. “A few years ago Vermont was Quebec’s fifth largest trading partner, but now we are number three. We are very important to them, as they are to us.”
Canada, itself, is highly involved in fostering environmental policies. Vermont shares in those concerns. But US proposals regarding immigration are currently more touchy. “We are concerned about the economic impact,” the governor says. “We have some villages and buildings that are bisected by the international border.”
The relationship requires much co-operation. But Mr Douglas is plugged in to these needs. After all, promoting an environmental technologies cluster dovetails with good international relations. And Mr Douglas holds fast that Vermonters should be stewards of the land along with the rest of the world.