Burlington Powered by 100% Renewables (well, almost)

The city of Burlington leads the way by reaching the state’s renewables goal of 100% renewables.
Published: Tue 18 Nov 2014

Burlington, the largest city in Vermont, is now being powered by 100% renewable energy sources. These include wind, water and biomass.

City boasts a mix of renewables

With a population of 42,000, Burlington proves that it is possible to power a bustling metropolis using natural and renewable resources. While it is by no means the largest city in the world, it isn’t a tiny town where adding some solar panels and one wind turbine would cover everyone’s electricity needs. Christopher Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, “It shows that we’re able to do it, and we’re able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future.”

It was the purchase of a 7.4MW hydroelectric facility on the Winooski River that actually helped the city meet its renewables goal of 100%. The power created by water, supplements the city's existing wind technologies, as well as a biomass facility that harvests energy from leftover woodchips supplied by the region's logging industry. The purchase led the city to join the Washington Electric Co-operative, an energy system that already powers thousands of households across northern and central Vermont — an area that went 100 percent green earlier this year.

It is important to point out that the city was actually aiming for 90% by 2050 (this aim is line with the state’s goal) so this was a tremendous achievement for all of those involved. The environmentally conscious city has been working towards this goal for some time and was even ranked number one (in a tie with Oregan) by Forbes as America’s greenest states.

Renewables – The environmental and economic benefits

While the environmental benefits were considered a priority, the city’s energy leaders and analysts discovered that it was not only a smart environmental choice, but financially viable, too. In the long run, both the city and its residents won’t be paying more for clean energy than they were when buying fossil fuels. Ken Nolan, manager of power resources for Burlington Electric Department, explains, “The prices are not tied to fossil fuels — they're stable prices — and they provide us with the flexibility, from an environmental standpoint, to really react to any regulation or changes to environmental standards that come in the future." According to Burlington authorities, there won't be any rate increases right now, and when the bonds for the city's latest hydroelectric station are paid off, there will actually be cost savings in the future.

"A lot of times when you buy plants like this, you end up having to increase rates initially to drop them later," Nolan said, "And we were able to buy it without any impact and then lock in the benefits in the future."

Burlington's achievement also demonstrates that the investment is good for local economics. After the city bought the local hydro plant, Moody's raised Burlington's credit rating from positive to stable. This is because it views the city as safe from the volatility of traditional energy markets and short term procurement contracts, says Diane Moss, the founding director of the Southern California-based Renewables 100 Policy Institute.

It must be mentioned that Burlington does rely on some fossil fuels for energy when the renewable resources aren't available. To make up for the intermittent nature of these resources, the city purchases energy generated with non-renewable resources to power the city. However, when the renewable sources are generating sufficient power, Burlington trades excess energy to other towns to make up for its deficits. Overall, Burlington energy authorities explain, the city sells more of its own (clean) energy than it buys from other communities.

So, while some critics and environmentalists say that Burlington's "100%" rate is a bit of stretch, no-one can argue that the city is making some impressive changes to their energy consumption and this must be applauded.

Communities working towards energy independence

"The momentum toward 100 percent renewable energy targets is already underway in the US," explains Moss. "Frontrunners like these will likely encourage cities in a range of geographic locations to look at the added value of seeking energy independence with renewables for their communities."

"Today, 100 percent renewable is starting to become part of the conversation among governments, regulators, non-profits, researchers, and businesses," added Moss, whose institute tracks worldwide commitments and achievements on the issue. "However, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. The United States generates less than 13 percent of its electricity with renewable energy sources, and less than 6 percent, if one doesn't count large hydropower. The federal US government ideally should establish a comprehensive policy to transition the nation to 100 percent renewable energy independence…..however, given the current partisan dysfunction in the United States Congress, we can realistically expect much of the leadership for the time being to continue to come from the local level and businesses.”