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Mount Desert Island – A Small Place with Some Big Environmental Goals

ACTT Featured in Portland Press Herald!   BY MARINA SCHAUFFLER in her Sea Change column March 11, 2018

The A Climate to Thrive group, formed in part to make the island energy-independent by 2030, is thriving. Mount Desert Island is a long way from the corridors of power, and what’s happening in Augusta and Washington holds scant promise of fostering a healthier environment or economy. So a growing number of MDI residents are taking matters into their own hands. Two years ago, they formed A Climate to Thrive (ACTT), seeking to help MDI “become an epicenter of citizen engagement, environmental sustainability and economic vitality.” A big part of that vision is to make MDI energy-independent – relying solely on local, renewable power – by 2030. 

This ambitious goal generated skepticism at first but more people are coming around, particularly after the group’s recent Summit drew upwards of 250 people to partake in 14 different workshops. Like most ACTT events, this one actively sought new volunteers, recruiting residents to help with the many projects underway, including:

• Weatherizing 75 or more homes this year, hoping to cut each household’s energy bill by at least 40 percent;
• Increasing the island’s recycling rate (which stands at only 13 percent) and reducing use of single-use plastic bags and containers;
• Exploring potential sites for six new electrical vehicle (EV) charging stations that an anonymous donor has committed to fund; and
• Organizing a “Ten Percent Challenge” in which households commit to cut that much in energy use – either through changed habits (such as hanging out laundry, carpooling, eating less meat or changing to LED lightbulbs – 3,000 of which ACTT has given out) or upgrades (like air sealing or installation of a mini-split heat pump).

Some new recruits to ACTT are persuaded by what the relatively new organization has already achieved – such as doubling the island’s solar capacity through its “Solarize MDI” campaign. The Solarize MDI and Weatherize MDI programs offer a great marketing opportunity for ACTT, which sends volunteers to polling places, signing residents up to receive the group’s e-mail notices – which list upcoming events, volunteer opportunities and progress reports. The last e-news announced the start of a winter farmers market on the island, making it easier for people to buy foods that aren’t shipped thousands of miles.

ACTT’s mailing list already has more than 1,100 people, roughly one-tenth of the island’s year-round population (which is spread out among four towns). An organization that networks effectively and links existing efforts can make an impact quickly. “It’s a small island,” explains ACTT’s Coordinator Joe Blotnick, “and you can really get a buzz going.”

He credits some of the success building momentum to a consistent focus on “the practical things that people can do.” ACTT tracks state-level public policy issues, but acts primarily as a spark plug – inspiring and educating local residents. Energized by what they learn, many of them advocate for improved municipal policies involving energy, transportation and waste reduction.

ACTT initiatives often emphasize personal savings as much as planetary benefits, asking questions like “If we can show you that going solar is more affordable long-term, would you be interested in getting an estimate?” They welcome widespread participation whether people are motivated by climate change concerns or simply want lower utility bills.
Kevin Buck, a selectman in Tremont, didn’t think at first that ACTT could possibly reach its goal of energy independence. Shortly before the organization’s launch, he had proposed a solar array on the town’s closed landfill and seen the plan summarily voted down. But the culture has changed markedly in two years (along with membership of the local board) and a similar measure recently passed, enabling Tremont to have renewable power in its school and municipal offices by late summer. Now, Buck says, “I believe that energy independence is not only possible, I think it’s going to happen.”