In September of 2014 the city of Burlington, Vermont became the first major city in the nation to source 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources. Though the achievement received scant media attention, it marked a major milestone for renewable energy in the United States. Across the country, coal plants are being retired and renewable energy is grabbing an increasing percentage of the electricity market share. Slowly but surely Big Oil and Coal are losing their stranglehold on the American power grid.
Cities looking to make their own contributions toward greening the U.S. power grid can learn a lot from Burlington's example. So what does it take to become the country's first renewable city?
What Powers Burlington?
Burlington's landmark achievement was a long time in the making. The city has been growing its renewable energy portfolio since 1984 when it completed construction of the Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station, a wood-burning power plant. When rising energy costs in the 1970s prompted Burlington's utility company, Burlington Electric Department (BED), to investigate alternative approaches to powering the city, the utility concluded that “[u]sing wood fuel would put money back into the Vermont economy, improve the condition of Vermont’s forests and provide jobs for Vermonters.” The facility is powered almost entirely by wood chips generated as a byproduct of the state's lumber industry. BED's most recent figures indicate that in addition to generating power through wood burning, the facility is now recovering methane gas produced as a byproduct (biogas) and using it to generate additional power.
The McNeil plant has been an important source of renewable energy for Burlington since its construction; as of 2013 energy generated at McNeil accounted for about 45% of Burlington's total energy consumption. In the intervening years, however, BED has invested in a variety of additional renewable resources, including several wind farms and hydroelectric plants. By 2013, these combined resources had allowed the city to reduce its fossil fuel usage to less than 6% of its total electricity consumption.
The tipping point for Burlington occurred in the fall of 2014. The city's declaration of independence from fossil fuels coincided with its purchase of the nearby Winooski One Hydroelectric Facility, which city officials had long had their eye on. Ownership of Winooski One ensured Burlington a long-term, reliable source of renewable energy and allowed the city to close the resource gap that until that point had been filled by fossil fuels. While exact figures have not yet been made available, according to a 2014 article by Burlington Free Press the city now anticipates that wind, hydropower, and biomass will each supply roughly one third of the city's power. Small-scale resources, such as locally generated solar power and agricultural biogas plants also contribute a small percentage of the city's power supply.
Supplying a city with energy is a complicated process, and it bears remarking that Burlington's claim to be powered by 100% renewable energy comes with an asterisk. Because of the city's substantial reliance on wind power, when the wind isn't blowing BED will once again have to purchase energy generated by coal or oil in order to keep the lights on. When the breezes are strong, however, surplus energy generated by the city's wind farms is sold back to the grid, thereby displacing fossil fuel-generated power elsewhere. The city expects to sell more energy than it buys, with a net fossil fuel usage of zero or less – meaning renewable energy sources will not only cover all of Burlington's energy consumption, but might also result in a decrease of fossil fuel use elsewhere.
Key Factors in Burlington's Success
The ability to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy requires a combination of favorable circumstances and political willpower, and there's no one-size-fits-all model for how to become a renewable city. A look at Burlington's tactics and circumstances is essential to understanding how other cities can develop their own plans to decrease reliance on fossil fuels.
Population size – Burlington may be Vermont's largest city, but with a population of 42,000, it's fairly small in the grand scheme of major U.S. cities. Larger, more populous cities have higher energy demands, and meeting those demands solely with renewable energy becomes increasingly challenging.
Location – Burlington relies heavily on wind and hydropower to meet its energy needs, both of which require specific geographical conditions to be effectively harnessed. Wind power, for example, requires a minimum average wind speed of 25 km/hr. Such conditions can typically be found in areas of high elevation, such as on one of Vermont's numerous mountain ranges. Less breezy regions, such as parts of the western United States, would reap fewer benefits from the erection of wind turbines. Similarly, hydropower generation requires not just the presence of a rolling river, but also certain elevations and annual rainfall levels to ensure a steady, reliable current. Cities without access to these geographical resources need to look to other sources – such as solar or geothermal power – to meet their energy needs.
Policy – Vermont has numerous incentives in place to make renewable energy production more lucrative. Perhaps the most important of these is the state's net metering law which allows Vermont residents to generate their own power using renewable energy technology (such as residential solar panels, for example) and sell excess power back to the utilities. Net metering allows energy producers to substantially reduce their electricity bills and in some cases even generate revenue. Such incentives are particularly effective in encouraging small-scale renewable energy production, because unlike grants and loans they provide ongoing, long-term financial benefits. Other financial incentives include rebates to reduce high upfront costs of renewable energy technology, low-interest loans to help finance the purchase of such technology, and tax breaks to renewable energy producers.
Renewable energy targets have also played an important role in developing the resources Burlington depends on. In 2005 Vermont's Public Service Department introduced a statewide SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy for Economic Development) goal requiring that a minimum of 20% of electricity sales by local utilities be obtained from renewable energy sources by 2017. In March of 2015 the Vermont House approved bill H.40, also known as RESET (Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation), which would increase the original SPEED goals to 55% renewable energy by 2017 and 75% by 2032. The state's Comprehensive Energy Plan Goal, established in 2011, requires that a full 90% of Vermont's total electricity needs be met with renewable energy by 2050. Such targets put considerable pressure on Vermont utilities to invest in renewable energy sources.
Public support – Burlington voters have long supported their city's efforts to move away from fossil fuels. In 1978, the bond to finance construction of the McNeil Generating Station passed by a vote of 71%. Popular sentiment toward renewable power doesn't seem to have decreased any since then – the $12 million bond issued in 2014 toward the purchase of the Winooski One plant passed by a vote of 79% and received unanimous approval from the Burlington Electric Commission. On a state level, voters in more conservative states may be less supportive of Vermont's aggressive renewable energy targets.
Cost – Not surprisingly, cost and public support often go hand in hand. Despite Vermont's famously progressive politics, it's fair to assume that Burlington's renewable energy initiatives, and the officials responsible for them, would receive more tepid voter support if it meant a significant increase in electricity costs. In the current energy market, renewable electricity still costs more than electricity generated by fossil fuels. BED offsets these additional costs by selling Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to nearby states looking to meet their own renewable energy targets. Revenue generated by sales of RECs allows Burlington residents to enjoy renewable power without paying higher electricity bills.
Where Renewable Energy Falls Short: Downsides to Burlington's Model
While renewable energy offers several major advantages over fossil fuels, there's still no such thing as a perfect energy source. Whether it's higher costs, ecological disruption, or greenhouse gas emissions that remain unacceptably high, virtually every known renewable energy resource has some kind of drawback. Similarly, while Burlington's switch to renewable energy is a commendable feat, it's not without its flaws. As towns, cities, and states across the United States look for ways to meet their own increasingly ambitious renewable energy targets, it's worth taking a moment to consider how existing practices can be improved upon.
Probably the most obvious imperfection to Burlington's approach is the city's reliance on a wood-burning facility. While wood is certainly renewable, burning it is far from the cleanest way to produce fuel. A 2013 article by Midwest Energy News explored the complicated relationship between wood-fueled energy production and greenhouse gas emissions and suggested that, particularly in the short-term, burning wood for fuel might actually generate more carbon emissions than the fossil fuel-based system it replaces. Burlington's approach of using harvest residue from the lumber industry as a feedstock rather than harvesting fresh lumber mitigates the carbon debt to a degree, and BED's website assures concerned citizens that “McNeil's emissions are one one-hundredth of the allowable federal level” (as well as one tenth the level permitted by Vermont's more stringent regulations), but the issue serves as a potent reminder that “renewable” doesn't always equate to “clean.”
The use of wind energy also raises environmental concerns. Mountain tops are prime real estate for wind turbines, and Vermont's commitment to developing its wind resources has resulted in the clearing and development of some of the state's previously undisturbed forests. In the same way that dams used to facilitate hydroelectricity generation have drawn outrage from conservationists for decades, some Vermonters feel that the state's reliance on wind power does more harm than good. At a recent hearing before Vermont's House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy Mark Whitworth of Energize Vermont argued that policies aimed at developing industrial-scale renewable energy projects destroy large swaths of Vermont's native ecosystems while providing negligible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Whitworth's organization has been a vocal opponent of the proposed RESET bill, promoting small-scale, locally-generated renewable energy in the place of industrial-scale projects.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to the problems of powering the world, and it's an unfortunate reality of the environmental movement that the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Habitat fragmentation and remaining carbon emissions are far from ideal, but they're still better than the alternative. Coal mining, oil drilling, and fracking have caused far more ecological destruction and habitat fragmentation than clean technology could ever begin to approach, and decades of burning fossil fuels have damaged the atmosphere, possibly beyond repair. Finding ways, even imperfect ways, to end fossil fuel dependence still offers some of our best hope for improving the health of the planet.
Burlington may have been the first city to cross the renewable energy finish line, but it isn't alone in its quest to transition away from fossil fuels. Cities and states across the country are ramping up their renewable energy targets, and a handful of states seem almost to be competing for the title of First State to Run on Renewable Energy. In January of 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown announced a plan that would call for California to obtain 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. According to BillMoyers.com, the proposal “would give California the most ambitious renewable energy target of any US state, eclipsing Hawaii’s 40 percent by 2030 target.” As if rising to California's challenge, the following month legislators in Hawaii introduced a bill that laid out a framework for state to operate on 100% renewable energy by the year 2040.
It remains to be seen which state will reach its renewable energy targets first, which states will follow suit, and what obstacles they may encounter along the way. What is clear is that renewable electricity is no longer a distant pipe dream, but rather an increasingly credible threat to the fossil fuel monopoly.
· BillMoyers.com: “California Governor Proposes Most Ambitious Renewable Energy Target in US”
· Burlington Electric Department:
· Burlington Free Press: “Renewable energy bill advances in VT House”
· CleanTechnica: “Pretty Picture,”
· EcoWatch: “Will Hawaii Be the First State to Go 100% Renewable?”
· Vermont.gov: Bill H.40
· Midwest Energy News: “Does burning wood instead of fossil fuels increase GHG emissions?”
· Renewable Energy Vermont: Incentive Types
· Triple Pundit: “Burlington, Vermont Now Runs on 100 Percent Renewable Energy”
· Vermont Public Service Department: State Renewable Energy Goals
· VermontWatchdog.org: “Vermont's environmental policy destroying environment, environmentalist says”
· The Washington Post: “These maps show the best places to put solar and wind power. (It's not where you think.)”
· ThinkProgress: “Largest City in Vermont Now Gets All Its Power from Wind, Water and Biomass”
· U.S. Energy Information Agency: “Planned coal-fired power plant retirements continue to increase”
Burlington Vermont: A Road Map to Becoming a Renewable City by UrbanSculpt staff Writer Leslie McIntyre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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