PHOTOGRAPHY BY GEOFF HANS – Click here to the view the full article and video

Vermont’s seemingly spacey climate change goals are putting the rest of the country to shame.

As the black SUV with the dark-tinted windows pulled off Route 8 and began trundling up the hill on the dead-end dirt road, about 30 political activists waited patiently in the chilly, skin-soaking fog.

They had gathered to see and be seen by the car’s occupant, Democrat Peter Shumlin, who, by late September 2016, had only a few months left as Vermont’s governor.

Holding signs bearing Shumlin’s name, many in the crowd were lifelong environmentalists — “my strongest environmental friends,” he called them. During Shumlin’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2010, they formed the grunt army planting lawn signs, knocking on doors and working campaign phone banks to tell people that yes, Shumlin would reduce Vermont’s carbon emissions.

Shortly after his election, Shumlin unveiled the most ambitious renewable energy goals of any state in the union: 25 percent of Vermont’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2025, 40 percent by 2035 and 90 percent by 2050. If met, the goal would essentially wipe Vermont’s environmental footprints clean.

Culturally, Vermont seemed primed for the dramatic pledge, says U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose authentic and curmudgeonly espousement of liberal ideals vaulted him into the national spotlight during a 2016 presidential run.

“From way back when, people in Vermont were very, very environmentally conscious,” Sanders said, speaking from his Senate offices in Washington, D.C. “We were one of the first states to say that you’ll get a money back refund on your bottles, for example.”

The timing also seemed right, said Sanders, because people are starting to really understand that an energy revolution, though daunting, is less daunting than the alternative.

“Compared to climate change devastating our planet, compared to the fact that we’re gonna see — stronger and stronger and more and more dangerous — extreme weather disturbances, such as what we have seen recently, we’re gonna see more flooding, more wildfires, more drought. So I think when you look at the reality facing the world, the answer is that we have got to be extremely aggressive and move as fast as we can to get away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy.”

About 30 protesters showed up for the ground-breaking ceremony of the Deerfield Wind project on Sept. 19, 2016. (Gillian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle)

This was the same philosophy that had led Shumlin to make his campaign pledge, and now, as Shumlin’s driver took him up the dirt road, he was intent on a milestone — a ribbon-cutting ceremony for 15 massive wind turbines along ridgelines on national forest land near the Massachusetts state line. The turbines would provide enough energy to power 14,000 Vermont homes.

But as Shumlin’s SUV rounded a bend, he had his first opportunity to read the signs held by his supporters. Or, more accurately, his former supporters.

“Shumlin’s VT Legacy,” read one, held aloft by a man in a frayed green ballcap and Santa Claus whiskers. “90% ruined by 2050.”

“Energy Hog Shumlin Speaks Today!” read another, scrawled in huge blue letters. A third: “Shumlin Blows Wind.”

“Some of these people I considered my friends,” Shumlin said.

But now they were jeering.

“Bats Yes! Shumlin No!” read yet another sign, held by a woman whose features were hidden by the hood of her full-body Batwoman costume.

People gave differing accounts of what happened next.

Local press reported that the protesters began hoisting their middle fingers at Shumlin. Some accused his driver of driving too aggressively and dangerously as he went past. An argument broke out between the protesters and three Vermont state troopers over where the protesters could stand in relation to the car.

“It’s a public road!” said a protester.

“Get out of the road!” shouted an officer. “Now!”

As soon as Shumlin’s car cleared the area, the troopers physically shoved some of the activists off the road. Though no one was hurt during the scuffle, and no arrests were made, for a ceremonial ribbon cutting — commonly accepted as the snooziest of all civic events — it was a complete debacle.

I wondered whether the scene shook Shumlin’s faith in his environmental legacy.

So, months after he left office in early 2017, I called and asked him. He claimed that he was happy with his legacy. He had stayed the course, he said, while his former supporters had become NIMBYs.

He sounded convincing, but I wasn’t sure. I wished I had seen his face-to-face confrontation with the protestors. Had he been firm and righteous, or slunk down in the car seat to avoid meeting the eyes of his former friends?

I also wondered whether the ambitious goals had effected any real change or were, essentially, a publicity stunt. When he unveiled his nonbinding statewide climate action plan, critics scoffed.

And in fact, it was hard to take those goals seriously.

A lot of the reason has to do with Vermont’s character.

Picture an iconic Vermont scene, and you’re probably thinking of something out of a painting by former Vermont resident Norman Rockwell — a rambling New England farmhouse surrounded by fields, the background filled with pine trees wearing thick coats of snow.

And that image really sums up why Vermont was spectacularly ill-suited for a clean energy revolution.

The farmhouse is one of many old homes in Vermont, where the average house is 35 years old (as compared to, say, Nevada, where the average home is only 20). Older homes use more energy because they hemorrhage heat and are stocked with inefficient appliances.

The forest in the background underscores the fact that Vermont’s population density is 68 people per square mile — just half of neighboring New Hampshire, which means people guzzle gas to travel over forested mountains on their daily commute.

And let’s not forget that Rockwellian snow, a reminder that Vermont is one of the coldest states in the nation, with an average annual temperature of just under 44 degrees.

Put those three things together, and you start to understand why Vermonters are bona fide energy hogs, spending more on energy — $2.6 billion a year — than education.

With the playing field in the Green Mountain State tilted so dramatically against energy conservation, it’s not hard to see why people laughed when Shumlin asserted that Vermont could lead the nation in renewable energy use.

Except this: Like the absurdly-shaped bumblebee that flies because it doesn’t realize how aerodynamics work, Vermont is defying its geographic realities and making an improbable run at those goals.

And, I soon learned, a lot of the reason has to do with Vermont’s character.

The Electric Executive

One such character is Duane Peterson, who on a sun-drenched spring day earlier this year told me about solar power from his hometown, the quaint New England town of Waterbury (population: 5,000, most of whom either work at or have toured the local Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory).

Though he almost certainly identified as a hippie in the days when he joined his peers in fighting against nuclear war, these days Peterson calls himself a “millennial by constitution.”

Chronologically, he looks more like a millennial’s grandparent, each hair in the process of deciding whether to turn gray, or to take the more popular path of abandoning his pate altogether. Peterson’s unflappable demeanor and ready smile make it obvious that he’s deeply satisfied with … well, with life.

“I’m having a ball,” he says.

And why wouldn’t he be?

Thirty-five years ago, Peterson was a patrol officer in the notoriously gang-ridden Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, part of a long and varied career that included running political campaigns in California and a stint as a top executive at Ben & Jerry’s. As a cop, he watched Watts transition from angel dust to crack cocaine — a dramatic and complete switchover based on a substitution of one product for another. And in 2011, just months after Shumlin unveiled his renewable energy goals, Peterson wondered if he could help Vermont neighborhoods make a similar transition by convincing consumers addicted to fossil fuels to throw them over in favor of a better product — solar energy.

There was little to work with. The average Vermont resident spent $4,273 on fossil fuels, the 9th highest in the nation, while there were just 9.6 megawatts of installed solar energy in the state, enough to power only about 1,600 of the state’s 267,000 homes.

There were other problems. Peterson concluded the state’s existing solar industry was riddled with problems, one being that “it was just stupid expensive” for the consumer.

Worse, fewer than half of Vermonters could, even in theory, put solar arrays on their property. There were thousands of heavily shaded woodland homes, slate roofs that couldn’t support solar (Vermont is home to Evergreen Slate Co., the largest slate roofing company in the world), and renters who would like to live on clean energy, but were frozen out of the decision because they weren’t landowners.

But he says the biggest problem essentially boiled down to marketing.

“Most of the solar businesses were run by male engineers,” he said. “And they were just in love with the gizmo, and ‘this stuff is just so cool, everyone should just want it.’ Marketing and selling were either an afterthought or even worse, they were kind of unseemly.”

The industry was building ever-more-efficient solar energy systems, but was doing virtually nothing to close the gap between supplier and consumer.

“That all seemed kind of nutty to me,” he said. “Like, what consumer product purchasing model is that based on?”

Peterson and his partner, James Moore, began talking about a different kind of solar company, one that would capitalize on Vermont’s strong environmental bent by making it as easy to buy solar as it was to buy a new television set.

Buoyed by his business connections, and Shumlin’s rhetoric, Peterson and Moore raised $1.4 million dollars from optimistic investors and opened the doors of their company — they called it SunCommon — in March of 2012, with 16 employees.

For those who can’t site solar on their property, SunCommon sells pieces of larger solar projects, which utility companies credit as if the solar panels were on the customer’s roof.

Vermont is one of only six states that allow this, called group net metering.

Peterson instructed staff members to go into their home communities and set up booths with solar literature at local festivals and outside supermarkets. Almost immediately after the company opened its doors, the light — and the cash — began pouring in.

By October 2012, the company had broken even on its seed money. Within a year, it was the largest solar company in the state, with $2 million in sales.

“Providing a joyful customer experience turns out to be pretty popular,” Peterson says.

Peterson explains this, sitting beneath a solar paneled roof in the bright and airy cafeteria of Vermont’s most net-positive building — SunCommon headquarters.

The facility, built by the commodification of solar radiation, has a new-age corporate feel, like a sleek Silicon Valley startup infused with a crunchy granola environmental ethos, the gleaming conference rooms featuring tables made from inoperable solar panels.

On a grassy area outside the building, a handful of employees toss a football around, while others are inside, leading dogs around on leashes or taking advantage of Cassiopeia, the lactation room named, like all the rooms, after constellations.

Peterson wants his workers to keep drinking the Kool-Aid, and so he keeps improving the flavor — just this morning, he met with a child care expert in an effort to better meet workforce needs. He also hosts monthly group meetings to get feedback from workers, who have snappy job titles like “media maven” “solar orchestra conductor” or “superintendent of the solar system.”

Part of what distinguishes SunCommon is that it is a B Corporation, a new corporate structure that is required to balance profits with social benefits to society. Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, is also a B Corp.

And SunCommon is just one player in the state’s solar revolution. Vermont aggressively courted solar investors by becoming the only state to guarantee a minimum price for power produced by renewables.

The result?

A critical mass of influential people have thrown their weight behind the state’s solar industry. Total investments were $132 million in 2016 and $452 million this year.

Over the past five years, the number of solar companies has exploded, to 83, while the cost of installing a residential solar system in Vermont has declined 64 percent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In all, 35,000 Vermont homes are powered by solar, and the total number of solar megawatts has gone from 9.6 in early 2011 to 196, on pace to meet Shumlin’s renewable energy target of 90 percent by 2050.

In 2015, the city of Rutland deemed itself the “solar capital of New England,” with more solar per-capita than any other community, while in 2016, the state’s largest city, Burlington, became the first in the nation to achieve 100 percent renewable energy.

Over five years, SunCommon’s sales have grown from $2 million to $22 million, and the company has signed up more than 3,500 customers.

But the money’s not important, says Peterson.

“I want people to be joyous about what we’re doing,” he says. “This isn’t a hustle. You know? This is, like, climate change.”

The Burly Builder

It’s hard not to like Steve Davis, a rough and tumble builder who, in 2011, was about to find his fortunes dramatically affected by Shumlin’s 90 percent renewables target.

Davis is an old-school contractor, born of deep-seated Vermont Yankee roots. Beneath his tattered jean shorts, I can see his shins are covered in messy scabs, the result of a recent run-in with some rebar.

“If you know anything about mobile homes, they can be pretty poor homes,” Davis says to me.

Mobile homes are a headache for environmentalists and social activists alike because the average owner spends 50 percent more on energy than owners of non-mobile homes. That’s bad for the climate, and it’s also bad for the residents, whose staggering energy bills pin them to the lower end of the economic ladder.

Just outside, Davis’s crew is building more modular homes for more trailer parks.

When he’s speaking with me, Davis keeps his gravelly voice on a tight leash, calm and restrained. But then his eyes flicker to a spot outside the window, and just the faintest tremor dashes across the gray mutton-chop tangle covering his face.

“Let me take care of this,” he says, still speaking calmly. “It will just take a second.”

An instant later, he’s storming across the parking lot to where the work crew is wrestling with a massive truck trailer.

“Hey! What are you doin’?” Davis roars, his voice cutting through the din of diesel engines like a fire alarm in a school cafeteria. Then he repeats, as if emphasis was lacking:

“What are you DOIN’?!”

The response, from a guy in his 20s who looks like he’s just been caught with Davis’ daughter, is muttered and deferential.

“Huh?” Davis barks.

It turns out the trailer is being maneuvered into an enormous factory bay so that a modular home can be lowered onto it. Davis doesn’t like the way the crew was extending the trailer’s arms to receive the house. It seems unlikely that this worker will ever make the same mistake again.

At 13, Davis began doing excavation work alongside his father. He chipped his way up until he could purchase his own earthmoving equipment. Soon, he began purchasing homes and renting them, doing a lot of the work himself to minimize costs. Twenty years ago, he built his first house, and never looked back.

It’s a pretty common success story among the ranks of Vermont’s ditch-diggers, house painters and carpentry crews, but for Davis, the story took an unusual turn in 2011, and not just because of Shumlin. That August, Tropical Storm Irene laid waste to much of Vermont, causing more than $800 million in damages.

The storm was particularly devastating to Vermont’s mobile home parks, many of which were situated on undesirable land in flood zones. About 550, or 15 percent, of the state’s mobile homes were totaled.

When reconstruction efforts commenced, Davis was representing the building industry on a state-sponsored task force that was trying to figure out how to best replace lost low-income housing, without simply perpetuating a cycle in which, a committee report lamented, cash-strapped residents were forced to run their water all winter long just to keep the poorly insulated pipes from freezing.

But the obvious alternative — building homes of a higher quality — seemed unthinkable, because energy-efficiency features jack up a home’s costs, pricing out the very residents the task force members wanted to help.

That high pricing is why net-zero homes — those that pull off the physics-defying sleight-of-hand of producing all the energy they consume — were, by default, the province of the rich.

But was there a way, task force members wondered, to replace mobile homes with something better — both energy efficient and affordable?

In the question, Davis smelled a business opportunity. He just had to figure out how to get his callused hands around it and wrestle it to the ground.

Today, with a lot of support and encouragement from the state, Davis has brought net zero to the masses with his construction company — Vermod, which is cranking out modular homes from an old UPS warehouse.

In October 2016, in the Vermont town of Waltham, Vermod completed a 14-home development known as McKnight Lane, the first nonprofit-owned net-zero affordable housing community in the country.

Davis shows off a showcase home in the parking lot. It’s as bright and upscale-looking as any mobile home I’ve ever been in, with the feel of a full-size ranch. Beyond the open-floor kitchen, a short hallway leads to a bedroom and bathroom. In the other direction, beyond the living room, there’s another bedroom and bathroom.

But what makes the home special, Davis says, are its energy efficiency features — solar panels with storage batteries, double-walled insulation and triple-paned windows that make the envelope so tight it needs an air circulation system to keep it from getting too stuffy. The home is heated with a souped up version of what Southerners know as a “swamp cooler,” an air exchange system that can draw heat out of the air and either dump it inside, or dump it outside, depending on the weather.

The heat pumps have only recently gotten efficient enough to be practical in Vermont — now that they can keep a home warm at 15 below, the number has exploded, from zero in 2010, to 13,550 by 2016.

The modular I’m standing in costs $163,590 to build, but a series of state and federal incentives bring it down to $113,090, which amounts to a mortgage payment of $481 a month. And residents trade a $300 monthly utility payment for a $20 monthly service fee, making the effective out-of-pocket cost ridiculously cheap.

Vermod’s not the only player in the field. Now that there’s an economic model that’s been proven to be profitable for builders, other companies are moving into the low-income net-zero market, including Studio Nexus, a nearby architecture firm that makes net-zero “Irene Cottages,” and Prudent Living, a Windsor-based company building eight homes to create a net-zero “Southscape” community, among others.

Vermod alone has built about 50 net-zero modular homes already, and Davis says that number will go up by about 50 a year, the maximum he can build out of his current location, for as long as people will keep buying them.

To keep pace with Shumlin’s energy goals, mid-market builders will have to follow suit to get to a target of 275 single family net-zero homes per year.

Still, a 2016 report from the Net-Zero Energy Coalition found that Vermont, where one could barely find a net-zero building five years ago, now has more net-zero homes per capita than any other state in the country.

The Car-Owning Critic

“This is a car that, putting that pedal down in normal mode, you will chirp the tires every time,” says Chris Doyle, a salesman at a major Chevy dealership in Rutland. He’s sitting in the passenger seat of a brand-spanking-new electric Chevrolet Bolt with all the trimmings, talking to a man named Kevin Jones, who just signed a veritable ream of paperwork to buy it.

“In sport mode, you will chirp the tires up until about 40 mph,” Doyle continues enthusiastically.

He places special emphasis on each of the next four words:

“It. Is. A. Rocket.”

It’s a sales pitch designed to address a nagging negative stereotype surrounding electric cars — that they’re the sole province of arugula-chomping liberals who are willing to sacrifice their masculinity on the altar of a greener planet.

In Vermont, which has 8,000 miles of dirt roads (and just 6,000 miles of paved roads), mud season is real, and every year, drivers with low clearance and no all-wheel drive — two hallmarks of most EV models — are forced to call for tow trucks.

But Jones, to be honest, looks like his tires will remain unchirped for the foreseeable future.

With greying hair and a professorial air, Jones didn’t need the appeal to his macho side. It’s unclear whether he literally chomps arugula, but he’s deep into the state’s electric car movement, and only needs the Bolt to be in a price range that would allow him to make what he sees as a moral purchase.

Jones served a stint as director of energy policy for the City of New York under Republican Rudy Giuliani, and currently works as the director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, a leftist institution with a focus on environmental law.  He even recently co-wrote a book about how electric batteries fit into a cleaner energy future.

But while Peterson and Davis have high praise for the state and its lofty energy goals, Jones is one of Vermont’s loudest critics on its energy policy.

He can be downright grumpy about it.

“Nothing on this transaction really comes from anything from the state of Vermont,” he says, pointing out that other states, like California, offer residents rebates to entice more people to buy electric vehicles.

Jones says Vermont legislators should be aggressively reforming the state’s infrastructure by, for example, mandating that all new homes include wiring to support plug-in vehicles.

“We’re not doing what we should be doing if we really believe that we need to electrify 80 percent of our transportation fleet in the next couple decades,” Jones says.

Convincing consumers to buy electric cars is an even thornier problem than getting them to buy solar panels or energy-efficient homes.

In fact, within the long string of Shumlin’s seemingly unattainable energy goals, the transportation component seemed particularly nutty.

Vehicles are responsible for nearly half of Vermont’s energy usage, and while improving public transportation can nibble at the margins, the only way to effect big change is to drag hundreds of thousands of noisy, smelly gas-guzzling combustion engines off the roads.

But imagining that transition is like an exercise in science fiction writing.

In 2010, the year that Shumlin ran for the governor’s office, there were 571,900 vehicles registered in the state of Vermont. Of those, 77 were electric vehicles, which works out to one in 7,427.

Today, Vermont’s electric vehicle landscape is an insanely lavish birthday party, replete with a live chorus, sumptuous feast and tempting party favors. But only a couple of guests are gathered in a corner, making awkward small talk, checking their watches and reassuring each other that everyone else will show up. Soon.

Over the past few years, companies in Vermont have built, at great expense, 160 public electric vehicle charging stations— more per capita, than any other state in the country.

Meanwhile, the cost and quality of electric vehicles keeps improving. When Jones bought his Bolt, he took advantage of rebates and a trade-in to get a monthly payment of $380, some of which will be offset by fuel savings.

So who’s coming to the party?

Hardly anyone.

There are only 1,768 electric vehicles registered in the entire state — 11 for each charging station. Put another way, there are nearly 10 times as many people who are working for the renewable energy industry, as there are electric vehicle drivers.

But to meet Shumlin’s goals, state analysts say there need to be 17,160 electric cars on the road by 2020, and 400,000 by 2050.

Put simply, mainstream consumers — not just environmental diehards like Jones — need to buy electric cars.

And that’s the problem that’s keeping the top environmental minds in the state up at night.

The Problem Parser

If you track any kind of energy story in Vermont — be it transportation, home heating, or solar — eventually you wind up on the doorstep of a big old brick building that overlooks Lake Champlain in Burlington.

A hundred and fifty years ago, it hosted a woolen mill, but today, it’s the home of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, a nonprofit think tank that’s taken on the massive task of weaning us all off of fossil fuels, and creating a new sustainable energy economy, from the grass-growing ground up.

This is the group that wrote Vermont Solar Pathways, a solar plan for the state that draws the dots between companies like SunCommon and the state’s renewable energy targets. It’s the group that administers Efficiency Vermont, which is both a statewide utility and home base for the housing coalition that partnered with Steve Davis on the idea of building his net-zero homes. And it also runs Drive Electric Vermont, a state-funded coalition that helps ensure that someone like Kevin Jones will have a public charging station to plug in his Chevy Bolt.

One of the group’s leaders is Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, director of transportation efficiency at the state-funded Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. She’s a warm presence, her smile broad and genuine, her hair a riotous tangle of white curls that can make it look like her head is embedded within a perpetually whirling blizzard.

“People would say I’m not as sophisticated and metropolitan as I could be,” she says.

VEIC has been chipping away at Vermont’s transportation problem for years — decades.

The overall philosophy that drives VEIC is simple: They identify obstacles to the energy revolution, and work to overcome them. It’s a cycle of research, analyze, implement, repeat if necessary. And it’s always necessary, especially in the transportation sector.

Wallace-Brodeur ticks down the list of things that the group has done to push electric vehicles. They host quarterly meetings of stakeholders. They do public polling and focus groups to understand why people aren’t buying electric vehicles. They helped draft the state’s complex energy plan that shows how transportation fits into the larger picture. They’ve partnered with private sector groups to help build up a network of charging stations, and to give up to a thousand dollars for people who bought electric vehicles, and up to $250 in the pocket of the person who sold the vehicle.

They’ve also performed an analysis that amounts to a compelling economic argument for a switch to electric vehicles.

“Right now all the money we spend to power our vehicles essentially leaves the state,” Wallace-Brodeur said. “We don’t produce oil. We don’t make tires here.”

In all, Wallace-Brodeur said, Vermonters ship more than a billion dollars out of state to cover its transportation needs, which is ultimately a huge drag on the state economy.  “If you divert some of that and keep that in the state, that’s significant,” she said.

Despite all VEIC’s work, there was little progress before Shumlin’s renewable energy targets were adopted by the state in 2011.

“It’s interesting,” she said. “A lot of my career, you work on the plans a lot. They sit on the shelf.”

Shumlin’s targets didn’t create a sudden surge of environmental goodwill. But it did organize and funnel the existing energy into a workable vision, and that has helped to tilt the culture from one of wishing, to one of achieving.

“It does seem to be a rallying plan,” Wallace-Brodeur said. “It does seem to be something that people are pointing to, watchdogging it. It does seem to be sort of our benchmark and people are using it that way.”

And despite the slowness of Vermonters to get behind the wheels of electric cars, Wallace-Brodeur says there are signs the state is racing toward a tipping point. Though the raw number of electric vehicles is small, the rate of increase is the highest in the Northeast — the number has doubled in the last two years, and gone up by more than 10 percent in the last three months alone.

Jones, who has been buying electric vehicles for years, says he, too, thinks the tipping point is at hand, because vehicles like the Bolt, he said, have finally closed the performance gap with their gas-guzzling cousins.

Now, he said, the word just needs to spread beyond the insular community of early adopters.

“Once people start driving them, they start realizing that this isn’t a nerdy car,” he says. “This is actually a good car.”

Getting to 90

Vermont is a special place, says Sanders.

In its improbable march toward achieving 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, the state is drawing on its strengths to offset its weaknesses.

“We have programs that help low and moderate income people have good roofing, good windows, good insulation,” Sanders said. “We have a private electric company, Green Mountain Power, which is clearly one of the leaders in the country in moving to sustainable energy. So when you explain to people that you’re helping to combat climate change, that the cost of your electricity is going down, your electric bill is going down, you’re creating jobs, that’s kind of a win-win-win situation.”

Vermont seems to have that magic recipe. Utility companies that will play ball. A left-leaning populace that elects legislators who are eager to make a dent in climate change. Smooth executives like Duane Peterson attracting tens of millions of dollars in investment. Guys like Steve Davis using grit and know-how to get things done. Critics like Kevin Jones, mapping out an ever-more ambitious future that keeps the state from falling into complacency. And big-picture thinkers like Wallace-Brodeur, stitching it all together.

Somehow, Shumlin’s 90 percent goal — the loftiest in the nation — came to bear at just the right time to help bring all of these disparate elements into a sort of rough harmony, with the Union of Concerned Scientists now ranking Vermont second in the nation for having “Clean Energy Momentum.”

Vermont’s energy revolution promises to twist the state’s energy economy and infrastructure into something so radically different that the end result is difficult to imagine.

The state has also benefited financially. One in 16 working Vermonters, or 19,000 people, work in the clean energy economy, which has grown by 20 percent — 10 times the state economy as a whole — over the last three years.

A critic might ask why it matters that tiny Vermont — which makes up just one fifth of one percent of the U.S. population — could meet a set of renewable energy goals.

But Sanders says it does matter.

“We have made real breakthroughs in recent years in substantially lowering the cost of wind and solar and other forms of sustainable energy. And if we had a president who understood the reality of climate change and was prepared to invest heavily in sustainable energy, we could lower the price even more. … But we need a federal government, we need state governments who are willing to help us invest — in that approach.”

Vermont is a lab experiment gone right, modeling practices that can be emulated and adapted to lead the way for other states across the country.

In fact, it’s already exporting its green.

A 2017 industry analysis by the Energy Action Network found that nearly one in four of the state’s clean energy companies primarily serves out of state customers.

Vermod has begun selling zero-energy modular homes in Connecticut and Massachusetts, while the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation just launched a pilot program for the same in Delaware. And SunCommon recently inked a deal with a New York solar company to offer residential solar plans to 50,000 employees of the Rochester Health System.

Peterson said he would welcome a certain brand of corporate espionage — steal our model and make money from it, he says.

“The climate needs more of this.”

And what about Peter Shumlin, the governor who pushed his climate change agenda so hard that he was flipped off by his environmental supporters?

Their basic objection was that, in Vermont, the renewable energy development had to be tempered, so that other considerations, like preserving the viewshed of the state’s iconic mountains, wouldn’t be compromised.

Sanders says he understands the need to be responsible in siting wind power, but Vermont needed to get serious about its energy revolution. “If people don’t like nuclear, if we don’t like coal, if we don’t like oil, if we don’t like gas, well, you know what? I think we should do everything we can to move toward wind and do it in an environmentally sensitive way with the participation of local people.”

Months after those finger-waving protesters confronted Shumlin, he told me it had not shaken his faith. But I wondered again whether he had, in fact, slunk by, averting his eyes in shame. It seemed to me that, if he truly had the faith of conviction, he would have stood firm.

So I sent Shumlin a final email, asking him what, exactly, his reaction was when he had been flipped off on that cold, drizzly day.

His email back had just four words.

“I returned the compliment.”