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.