Short for Darren Springer Interviewed for a job with the Burlington Electric Department (BED) in 2016, the city proudly exclaimed that it would become a “net energy neutral city” by 2030. That meant there was no more gas or oil to heat residents’ homes and gas-powered cars had to be replaced by electric vehicles and more public transport.
“I said that must be one of the most ambitious goals in the country,” said Springer, who is now CEO of BED. The edge. “That was one of the things that drew me to this job at Burlington Electric.” He has since worked to get the city on track to achieve that goal. And while the target may have been unheard of in 2016, it is now just an early example of the dazzling renewable energy ambitions that more and more governments seem to be dreaming up.
As of September 2020, it had 452 cities and 22 regions commitments made to reduce and offset their carbon dioxide emissions from global warming, achieving net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century. It’s all part of a race to prevent the worst effects of climate change from becoming a reality, which scientists say will require the entire world to almost completely suppress greenhouse gas emissions by that deadline.
President Joe Biden sets the US on track to run entirely on clean electricity by 2035. That’s not an easy goal, given that renewable energy sources make up only about 20 percent of the country’s energy mix today. Fortunately, Biden and other state and city leaders with similar goals have roadmaps of communities like Burlington, Vermont already ahead. The city offers a glimpse into what a clean energy future could look like for the rest of the country, what it might take to get there, and what potential pitfalls can best be avoided.
“Having such an ambitious goal encourages creativity and innovation because you have to find ways to scale up, test different approaches, try something [and] fail in some cases, and then evolve your approach, ”says Springer.
The city has largely tried to get its residents on board with its clean energy plans through carrots rather than regulatory sticks. It focuses on incentives, such as discounts for residents who install energy-efficient heat pumps. City leaders have been given a few push back for tougher stances, such as when the City Council proposed an amendment to the Burlington City Charter that would allow it to award an “impact” allowance to homes and buildings that still rely on fossil fuels for heating. Voters eventually approved the measure this year.
Voters will have to re-approve the proposed fees if the charter change is approved by the state legislature. But when they do, it shows some of the clear benefits the city has that made it switch to renewable energy so early. The residents, city leaders, and a local utility company were all aligned with environmental efforts. Since the 1960s, people have flocked to Vermont in search of an alternative way of life – often escaping big cities or in search of greener living. One of the most famous transplants is Green New Deal champion Senator Bernie Sanders, who moved there from New York City in 1964 and eventually became the mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.
“Environmental leadership began in the late 1980s, and we have been able to keep it up,” said current Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. “You only need two things if you want to do this: you need the political will to bring about these kinds of climate emergencies. And second, you need technical skill. “
For Burlington, the municipal utility is the engineering arm that fulfills many of the goals of climate change political leaders. It was established more than 100 years ago after residents were fed up with the high rates of the previous private utility company.
“Burlington had a long history of local control, local management … People in the city are engaged and know where their energy comes from,” said Jennie Stephens, director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “That’s something that’s unique that not all communities and cities have, which allows Burlington to be really creative and innovative early on.”
Today, the city’s control of the utility makes it much easier to make changes without a power struggle. The city essentially manages everything from power generation to distribution.
For cities that draw their strength from investor-owned utilities, she says, “It’s this very complicated, constant negotiation with the utility company … the tendency for a lot of these organizations is to try to keep everything the same because it’s works and they’ve made money.
One of the biggest advantages to Burlington is that they have easy access to both water and wood. More than 30 percent of Burlington’s electricity comes from burning wood, much of which is left over from the region’s logging industry. Another 40 percent comes from hydropower, making Burlington the first city to run 100 percent on renewable electricity in 2014. Wind provides another 25 percent. Just over 1 percent of Burlington’s electricity came from solar energy last year.
Because the city is dependent on wood and water, it can get around some of the infrastructure headaches of sun and wind. Electricity grids were constructed to allow a constant flow of energy from fossil power plants. Those old grids currently don’t have the storage – aka batteries – built in to store energy for use when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Burning wood and rotating water turbines also generates a constant flow of energy, making it more compatible with the existing grid. Nationally, the clean energy transition will require a major grid upgrade to accommodate more intermittent renewable energy sources.
Burning wood and damming watercourses have a smaller impact on the climate than fossil fuels. But they are also more controversial than sun or wind. Larger, older dams are notorious for devastating ecosystems. However, wood combustion involves other pollutants that can affect air quality.
‘It is a trade-off of several factors, you know. We want renewable energy, we want to mitigate the impact of various projects, ”says Springer. “From all the different literature we have looked at, it is much more beneficial to have renewable energy sources than to use fossil fuels.”
Cities that want to achieve sustainable energy goals will have to find their own balance. They will also need to consider who could bear the burdens of that transition, whether it be air pollution from burning biomass such as wood, or some households seeing higher utility bills costing the cost of building new energy. infrastructure. “This transformation is an opportunity to invest in people and communities in very different ways. And if we don’t, it is also a real risk, ”says Stephens.
Within the mainstream environmental movement, a consideration has been made to ensure that the benefits of clean energy are felt equally, and that households with a low income are not disproportionately saddled with the costs and burdens of an energy transition. Stephens points to New York State as a prime example of finding just solutions: it intends to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2040 and stipulated that 35 to 40 percent of the benefits of the new climate and energy policy go to disadvantaged communities.
Looking beyond Burlington, there are more grassroots efforts to build fair, green energy infrastructure. The nonprofit, indigenous-led Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is developing what it calls a “net zero energy community” for members of the Oglala Lakota nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The aim is for the energy of the 34-hectare development to come entirely from renewable energy sources, mainly solar energy for the time being.
At the moment, the homes, apartment buildings and community center that are part of the development only derive about half of their electricity from solar energy. They have not yet been able to figure out the solar intermittence problem and batteries are still too expensive. (Thunder Valley has also suffered setbacks from more extreme weather, such as baseball-sized hail that actually broke through solar panels last year.)
Thunder Valley recently filed for proposals on how the development can get the rest of the way to its goal. And in the meantime, it relied on traditional architectural styles to make structures more energy efficient, such as large south-facing doors that let more sunlight into the houses to heat floors. As with Burlington, another strong point is how engaged residents are in thinking about how development is progressing, says Chance Renville, a project manager at Thunder Valley. “Tribe members are really the designers and the ones who shape this place and make it what it is,” says Renville.
“We’ve lived in harmony with Mother Earth for generations, and more recently we’ve gotten away from it,” says Renville. “But I think it is important for us to really look at what we do and how we can live more sustainably again.”
There is no one-size-fits-all plan to move communities into a more sustainable future. Communities and leaders will need to identify the strengths and resources each community already has – be it traditional knowledge, strong civic participation, or existing policies and infrastructure.
“There are so many good reasons to have and strive for an ambitious goal, even if it requires trial and error,” said Springer of Burlington. “Even if at first it feels like it might be more than achievable, I think we’re trying to prove it can be feasible.”