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Energy Action Network: Finding the path to renewable energy in Vermont

The Energy Action Network of Vermont

In the fall of 2011, the State of Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan featured a bold new goal: moving the state to 90% reliance on renewable energy by 2050. To many Americans scanning the headlines that announcement may have sounded like a logical extension of the state’s reputation for progressive politics; but the advocates involved in securing the victory knew that it was not only hard-won, but reflected a radical transformation of the dialogue on energy policy at the state level. This story sketch details how that transformation was enabled a new social impact network, the Energy Action Network of Vermont, catalyzed and developed through three years of hands-on engagement by a small local family foundation.


The work began in 2009 when the issue of fragmentation had become deeply frustrating to Jennifer Berman and her trustees. Berman was Executive Director of the Maverick Lloyd Foundation, a family foundation in Vermont that gave just under $300,000 in grants each year across a variety of program areas that included energy and the environment. She and her trustees had been noticing a consistent trend in the grant applications they received from nonprofits working on climate and energy issues: in spite of significant overlap in their missions, there was virtually no coordination.

“We were frustrated by the range of groups who were proposing similar kinds of work without a lot of collaboration,” Berman said in an interview with Monitor Institute. “We wanted to figure how to have a greater impact, even without having a lot of money, so we started looking for ways to support more collaboration and alignment within the field. We were keenly aware of the many previous processes around climate and energy that had happened in Vermont, but we also saw that they had all been oriented towards putting out a report. Nothing had brought together a strategically-chosen group of folks to think about where the state needed to go, mapped out how to get there, and created the capacity for that group to do work over time.”

Berman and her trustees went hunting for models of collaboration that could find consensus amidst such diverse opinions, and discovered RE-AMP, a network of over 160 organizations across nine Midwestern states that was also working on state-level policy reform to fight climate change. RE-AMP had formed out of a very intentional use of systems thinking to build shared understanding within a fractious group and find the most effective paths forward, and then had created a highly decentralized structure for coordinating collaboration against those goals. The more that Berman and her trustees learned about the RE-AMP approach, the more convinced they were that it might work in Vermont.



Berman and her trustees initially centered on an ambitious goal: switching the state of Vermont to 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2030. She had developed a firm conviction that starting with systems thinking was the right way to cut in on a problem of this scale, not only to find the best solutions but also to create more productive relationships among the many actors involved. “Systems are made up of people who have beliefs about what is possible and until we change those beliefs, we can’t change systems,” she reflected. “We needed a process that would help people understand why people with different perspectives were making the choices they were.”

Working with a team from Growing Edge Partners and Ecosynomics author Jim Ritchie-Dunham, her team began an extensive set of interviews with 40 of the key actors involved in the production, distribution, and regulation of energy in Vermont. Each conversation began with a simple but powerful question: What stood in the way of the state achieving 100% reliance on renewables? The interviews surfaced each person’s detailed perspective on the complex web of causes and effects that defined the state’s energy system. Out of each interview, they created a map of the system as that person saw it.

These interviews showed that the issue of fragmentation extended far beyond the nonprofits who were applying to the Maverick Lloyd Foundation: every single person had a different interpretation of the nature of the problem and what a solution could look like. But there was also reason for hope: many of the interviewees said they would be excited to find a way to collaborate. Combined with an extensive review of previous energy studies, these interviews also enabled Berman and her team to piece together the first-ever map of the state’s energy system that integrated perspectives from all of its key actors.



Berman’s next task was to see whether there was potential for this fractious group to work together. She invited all of the interviewees to a convening where they were asked to share their stories, compare their views to that of the integrated map, and look for ways that the system could be shifted to achieve such an ambitious goal.

It took several days of discussion, but in spite of including representatives from manufacturers, utilities, fuel oil dealers, government agencies, environmental and energy advocates, and large corporations, the group was able to find clear consensus on two points. First, full reliance on renewables was too ambitious but 80% by 2030 was both achievable and agreeable for everyone involved. Second, the way to get there was to put simultaneous pressure on four “leverage points” that represented the greatest opportunities for change: public engagement, regulatory reform, technological innovation, and capital mobilization.

Building that common understanding was helped a great deal by establishing an atmosphere of trust and respect. The quality of the integrated map also helped. As one participant said, “I’ve been doing this work for twenty years, and I’ve never been able to articulate what I do and care about in such a succinct and articulate way.” In that environment, the diversity in the room became an asset. Berman recalled one discussion of whether it was possible to reach the goal: “The woman who ran the electric utility said, ‘Well yes, it’s totally possible in electricity. And here’s how.’ She proceeded to run through the scenario, and then said, ‘But I really can’t understand how we could get there in the heating sector.’ And the heating person said, ‘Well it’s more difficult but here’s the how we could do it, some of the tradeoffs and some other things we have to think about. But I can’t see how we can do it in the transportation sector.’ And it went on like that around the table. It was an incredible moment.”

Arriving at this point of realization kicked the group into gear: working groups formed around each of the leverage points, other experts were recruited to join the effort, and in 2010 the Energy Action Network of Vermont launched with over 70 leaders involved.



Berman knew from the stories she had heard about RE-AMP and other networks that the greatest challenge lay not in sparking the energy for collaboration but in sustaining it. She and her team made an intentional choice about their role: as they had done in the opening convening, they would focus their energy on maintaining a productive dialogue and allow the group to govern itself as much as possible.

Looking back, Jim Ritchie-Dunham felt that this played a valuable role in sustaining the group’s momentum through the issues that later emerged around exercising control, giving credit, and measuring impact. “Many of the participants in the stakeholder group told us that it was the sincerity of the invitation that had brought them to the process, and the quality of leadership throughout a series of gatherings that kept them engaged and committed,” he wrote in Ecosynomics. “It was significant that the leadership team was open to redefinition of the goal. That established the principle of honoring all perspectives and set the stage for the emergence of strong alignment.”

The result of this careful use of influence was a continued growth of new relationships across what had previously been battle lines. Berman recalls one moment between a private sector leader and an environmental advocate. “These two traditionally had been at odds at the state house. They didn’t agree on anything,” she said. “But in one of our meetings, [the private sector leader] stood up and directly quoted the advocate. You could see a different kind of conversation happening: people could disagree yet still see how much they could agree on.”

It still took some convincing to attract other funders. Prior to the network launch, many were unsure why yet another group process was going to succeed where earlier efforts had failed. “It was hard to explain to people why they should invest in what was perceived as ‘yet another process’ when we couldn’t tell them for certain what the outcome was going to be,” Berman reflected. “Some of the funders were skeptical. They didn’t know if this was going to be different than any of the other prior efforts and weren’t sure it was worth the risk of advocating to their boards or EDs to get involved.” But as the network took form and began to show results, a number of other foundations became interested. Today it boasts the support of not only Maverick Lloyd Foundation but also Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Canaday Family Charitable Trust, John Merck Fund, Sustainable Futures Fund, and High Meadows Fund.

Out of all this careful, sustained engagement came the major policy win in 2011. When the State of Vermont revised its energy plan for the first time in over a decade, the plan centered on a slightly revised version of EAN’s goal (90% by 2050), and the network’s four “leverage points” were described as key areas of focus. EAN has now aligned its goal with the state’s goal and to get there, the network continues its work through a backbone structure that provides coordination, funding support, meeting facilitation, and shared metrics.

Berman looks at the network’s work with pride. “For me, this is the best of philanthropy,” she said. “It’s not about power, it’s not about individual ego, it’s not about proving that one particular theory of change is the right one. It’s about bringing people together to imagine what’s possible, change hearts and minds, and transform systems, so that we can create a different future. The fact that we were able to do that in Vermont is very gratifying.”



In the section What network design would be most useful? we introduce a simple framework for comparing the ‘design’ of a network — eight basic variables that define its shape and size. See below for our estimation of Energy Action Network’s design (in teal) versus that of the other networks we profile (in white):

06 Eanvt-01


Sources: A Monitor Institute interview with Jennifer Berman (fall 2014), an unpublished draft case study of the Energy Action Network of Vermont provided by Jennifer Berman (fall 2014), Case Study of the Energy Action Network of Vermont by Beth Tener (January 2014), the website and 2012 annual report for the Energy Action Network of Vermont, and the book Ecosynomics by Jim Ritchie-Dunham (April 2014).