Camden Climate Action: Looking Back, and Forward

Sun, 12/10/2023 - 12:30pm

About this blog:

  • Sarah Miller

    I’m Sarah Miller, a semi-retired international energy and business journalist and editor, and now a Camden resident. Having spent a career learning about old energy, I’ve turned to new energy in recent years. In doing so, I’ve come to see how important fossil fuels and the way they work were to the structure of 19th and 20th Century economies and societies. I’ve also started to imagine what cleaner, more distributed energy forms could mean for the structure of 21st Century economies and societies. The climate crisis is frightening, but the energy and social transitions that accompany it can bring us a better world -- if communities like ours here on the Midcoast work in a bottom-up, “distributed” way to make it so. That’s what Tales from the Transition is all about.

    I am active in the community through the Camden Energy and Sustainability Committee, the Camden Philosophical Society, the board of Bay Chamber Concerts and Music School, and the climate activist group Climate Matters Maine. I am a former president of the Camden Conference. The views expressed in this blog, however, are strictly my own.

Camden has been active – and often effective -- on the climate front for a long time, something people in Camden seem too often not to have known or to have forgotten. But these efforts deserve recognition and provide a strong base for future action both to limit the town’s greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for changing weather patterns.

Part of the reason for the low recognition for the town’s past climate actions may be that they often came under the supposedly less controversial rubrics of “energy” and “sustainability.” The first Camden Energy Committee was formed way back in 2006 to investigate alternative energy sources. Its first big act was to help the town secure a net-metering deal that kept a small hydroelectric facility at Seabright Dam on the Megunticook going for another nine years, until equipment failures forced its closures.

By 2010, the committee had homed in on assessing the feasibility of generating wind power on town property at Ragged Mountain, also home to the Snow Bowl. It arranged for the University of Massachusetts Amherst to do a technical study, which is still available and which showed considerable wind potential at the site. But by that point, a citizens’ group had formed in opposition, and it quickly won the day – so definitively that, in short order, the Energy Committee was suspended, for what would turn out to be nearly five years, and wind power has yet to return to Camden agenda.

In 2015, though, a new Energy and Sustainability Committee was formed, spurred by the Watershed School’s report of that year on “A Carbon Neutral Camden.” Solar replaced wind as the renewable energy source of interest, and within barely over two years, Camden brought online a 351 panel, 123 kW (DC) solar array on town property at Sagamore Farm – a facility as big as state law of the day would accommodate. It indirectly provides 8%-10% of Camden’s municipal power, which is more than it sounds, since the heavy needs of the Snow Bowl mean Camdem uses a lot more electricity than surrounding towns its size.

Around the same time, Camden became the first town in Maine to sign the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, again with impetus from Watershed School and support from the committee. The Energy Committee also helped Camden convert first its downtown and then all its streetlights to LEDs, cutting the cost of lighting our streets by70%-80%.

Fast forward to January, 2021, when Camden held a town meeting at the Snow Bowl parking lot during the pandemic, where we voted overwhelmingly out our car windows in favor of a contract with Siemens for $2.3 million in energy efficiency improvements to town property. While the committee actively supported the efficiency improvements, the contract also covered a geothermal project at the Snow Bowl about which some Energy Committee members had doubts. Those concerns were not address before the committee was again suspended by the Select Board that February, along with all the town’s non-statutory committees.

Fortunately, enough momentum remained that some Energy Committee members, led by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, organized a series of four Zoom programs with the town library entitled “Let’s Talk About Energy.” These focused first on the home, then businesses, the town itself, and finally, the state.

Unfortunately, other things the committee was working on have since largely gone quiet – including an informal but frequently cited goal of building or buying into enough solar generating capacity to cover the town’s entire municipal electricity use and an energy savings campaign aimed at helping low-income residents.

While nearly three years that have passed since the town Energy Committee and Sustainability ceased to function, its past efforts can provide pointers to some of the many needs and opportunities Camden still faces in the energy transition. Those of us active in CamdenCAN, a new independent citizens’ group working with the town but not directly under its aegis, can fill the gap and help town officials who are now working to revitalize Camden’s efforts to both limit and cope with climate change.

(A version of this post was presented by Sarah Miller at a panel discussion arranged by CamdenCAND Dec. 7 at the Camden Pulibc Library, entitled “Where Does Camden Stand on Energy Action.”)