Burlington's decades-long commitment to sustainability has paid off with cheap electricity—and some pretty great homegrown food. The city is the first in the nation to obtain all of its power from renewable sources.
Colin Woodard, POLITICO — To understand what makes Burlington unlike almost any other city in America when it comes to the power it consumes, it helps to look inside the train that rolls into town every day.
The 24 freight cars that pull up to the city’s power plant aren’t packed with Appalachian coal or Canadian fuel, but wood. Each day 1,800 tons of pine and timber slash, sustainably harvested within a 60-mile radius, is fed into the roaring furnaces of the McNeil Generating Station, pumping out nearly half of the city’s electricity needs.
Much of the rest of what Burlington’s 42,000 citizens need to keep the lights on comes from a combination of hydroelectric power drawn from a plant it built a half mile up the Winooski River, four wind turbines on nearby Georgia Mountain, and a massive array of solar panels at the airport. Together these sources helped secure Burlington the distinction of being the country’s first city that draws 100 percent of its power from renewable sources.
The net energy costs are cheap enough that the city has not had to raise electric rates for its customers in eight years. And Burlington is not done in its quest for energy conservation. Add in the city’s plan for an expansive bike path, a growing network of electric vehicle charging stations and an ambitious plan to pipe the McNeil station’s waste heat to warm downtown buildings, and City Hall’s goal to be a net zero consumer of energy within 10 years starts looking achievable.
How did this former logging port transform itself to a global trendsetter in sustainable development and green power?
The answer carries particular resonance at a time when the United States’ commitment to environmental issues and addressing climate change is suddenly less certain than at any time in a decade.
Cities like Burlington, the largest city in a state whose tourism and agriculture dependent economy is vulnerable to climate change, have had to craft their own solutions to address global warming and to insulate themselves from the volatility of global energy markets.
Indeed, because Burlington owns its own utility with its own citywide grid, the city could theoretically close its three connections with the wider world and generate all of its power from McNeil, Winooski One, wind turbines, and solar panels. This led a visiting writer for Orion magazine to declare this was where she would move to wait out a zombie apocalypse.
Achieving “Net Zero”
A city is considered net zero when it generates as much energy as it consumes, not just in the form of electricity, but heat and transportation as well.
Achieving such a state would even further insulate Burlington from the volatility of fossil fuel markets, saving money and luring more entrepreneurs and businesses linked to sustainability, such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, green cleaning products maker Seventh Generation, and climate-conscious Burton Snowboards.
“We’ve got our own goals around eliminating our carbon footprint completely, and being based in a city where that’s easily possible is very important to us,” says Joey Bergstein of Seventh Generation. “Our history here is very much driven by the fact that the city and the state of Vermont are so aligned with our values.”
At the city-owned airport, they’ve reduced demand for heat and electricity by replacing lighting and air conditioning systems and properly insulating the terminal’s roof. There’s a 500-kilowatt solar array that’s been providing enough power to supply 60 homes and a rain garden on the roof of the parking garage.
“We’re a small airport and we don’t have a lot of money, but what we try to do is to introduce a greener way whenever we change a bulb, replace a window, or repair our roof in a way that gives us a greater energy savings and return on our investment over time,” says city aviation director Gene Richards, who cut electricity usage at the airport by a fifth in three years.
Achieving net zero in transportation is thornier than heating and power because there are few big users to focus on and only a handful of users have invested in all-electric vehicles. “There’s the range anxiety with electric vehicles—can I go far enough?—so having enough well-placed charging stations is really helpful,” says Lunderville of Burlington Electric, which has deployed 10 multiple-outlet charging stations at strategic locations around the city, and plans to add five to six annually.
Decentralizing Electricity Generation: Giving the Power Back to the People, Literally
Burlington Electric is preparing for a challenge of its own: Its grid is expected to shift from a “hub-and-spoke” system of power plants and consumers to a distributed network with thousands of tiny producers and storage sites.
“The changes are being driven by the customers, who didn’t used to have the option to do their own solar panels or start storing their energy with a Tesla battery pack,” says Lunderville. He envisions creating a system by which the utility could pay customers to store energy for the network at times when they don’t need it banked themselves.
The industry expects these changes everywhere, but Burlington is likely to see them early—because of its green ethos and because Vermont offers a variety of incentives for customers to invest in solar.
But it’s also the perfect sandbox—a small city that owns its own grid, power generation and public fiber-optic data network— and the utility is ready to pioneer the development of the technology and policies to make it all work.
“Having the fiber optics in place is really critical to moving toward this bi-directional energy grid,” says energy consultant Gabrielle Stebbins, who previously headed the state’s renewable energy industry association. “We’re a small state and city, so we’re not driving the bus. But the little motor car we’re driving can tell which roads are possible and feasible.”
Thank you to author Colin Woodard and our friends at Politico for providing the original article below.
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