Burlington, Vermont Now Runs on 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Burlington, Vermont, Burlington Electric, Wind Power, hydropower, biogas, renewable energy, clean energy, renewables, solar, Leon Kaye
This biomass power station in Burlington provides about a third of the city’s energy needs.

Burlington, Vermont, has been making waves for becoming the first city in the U.S. to be powered 100 percent by renewables. (Some may say Greenburg, Kansas was the first, but we are talking about a town of 800 people versus 42,000 in Burlington.) Reliant on coal a generation ago, Vermont’s largest city has slowly revamped its energy portfolio, culminating in the purchase of a hydropower plant late last year.

This milestone may not be surprising considering Vermont’s progressive politics and buy-in from residents who overall supported the plan of the local utility, Burlington Electric. But the fact that Burlington has been able to do this without raising rates since 2009 — while saving the city about $20 million over the next 20 years — creates a case study for communities that are interested in investing in renewables but skittish about making such an aggressive move.

Granted, Vermont’s local topography has helped Burlington achieve its goal. Before “biomass” became a commonly used word, the city had invested in a power station that for 30 years has been fueled mostly by wood chips. Most of the fuel stock used at the McNeil Generating Station comes within 60 miles of its location, with the resulting biofuels derived from logging residue and culled tree material. An adjacent scrap yard accepts more waste wood from residents who are willing to drop it off. As a result, the power station, which can consume 76 tons of wood chips an hour, can generate up to 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity — long providing a third of the city’s power needs.

About 20 percent of the city’s electricity comes from wind power, most of it from a nearby 40 MW project that has operated for four years. A smaller portion comes from solar energy the city purchases, including a solar array at the local airport that flipped the on switch late last year.

The largest share of electricity comes from hydropower — much of it is purchased from plants running in Maine, in addition to the city’s latest purchase, a plant on the Winooski River. Other programs, such as a smart grid project, have helped the city use energy more efficiently: In fact, Burlington uses less energy now than it did in 1989.

Not everyone is impressed with Burlington’s renewable portfolio. Interviewed in a PBS news segment, Sandra Levine, an environmental attorney, alleges Burlington Electric is using creative accounting to show they city is running on 100 percent clean energy — and particularly takes issue with Burlington relying in part on an old Maine hydropower plant. But in fairness, Burlington has done something no community in the U.S. has done before: revamp its energy portfolio while keeping electricity cost-competitive for its residents.

Image credit: Burlington Electric

Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He is currently Executive Editor of 3p, and is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He's traveled worldwide and has lived in Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

15 responses

  1. How is burning wood now considered renewable energy? It’s still fossil fuel, which creates problems for the environment. The whole point is that we need to get away from burning things for energy. The sun is already burning. There is no need to commit more burning within the earth’s atmosphere. With so much plentiful energy from the burning of the sun, the natural heat of the earth’s core, and the force of gravity, there is no need to continue to burn materials for energy. Maybe the term “Renewable Energy” is the problem here. The thinking is, if a material can be easily replenished, it does away with all our problems if we burn it. We should embrace the term “Self-renewing Energy”, meaning a source of energy that naturally re-establishes itself without any input from people.

      1. Good point. I shouldn’t have used that term. Wood burning is definitely better than coal or other fossil fuels, especially with newer-tech burning facilities. But I still maintain that we need to get away from the thinking of burning anything for fuel. When it’s done on a mass scale it creates a whole new set of issues, including how do we produce it when there is more demand for it than can be replenished naturally.

  2. Renewables are not available 100% of the time. You still have to have fossil fuels to make up the difference during slack times and peaks. They are also much more expensive. Technology has kept improving or our air would be getting worse instead of better.

    1. Solar and wind are both cheaper than coal or gas and getting cheaper.

      Energy can be stored using pumped hydro storage or liquid metal batteries at a lower cost than using natural gas as a backup.

      Solar produces the most energy during the periods of highest demand.

      100% renewable is not only possible , it would also save us money.

      1. The iso newengland peak generally hits 6-10pm when solar is not available.
        I am not convinced that huge stock piles of highly toxic batteries are the best method for a quick dispatch power source in mass.

        1. Pumped hydro will suffice- it’s cheaper than gas or batteries. We can do underground vertical pumped storage, conventional or we can use seawater so that you don’t need a lower reservoir or freshwater.

          Ambri batteries would be useful for rare instances where geology makes pumped hydro impossible (no shoreline, no body of water nearby, no possibility of drilling underground). Such instances are pretty rare.

          Wind has a cf of 50% and is already cheaper than any other energy source save hydro. If we couple wind with pumped hydro we could have a closed loop system that provides energy that is cheaper than what we now get from fossil fuels.

          Solar will probably remain a bit player, useful in sunny areas to help deal with peak loads. This reduces the number of wind turbines and hydro projects needed and improves the overall efficiency of the system.

          Biogass or biomass from landfills, sewage, crop waste etc can be burned in nat gas generators to fill in the gaps when pumped hydro storage isn’t sufficient. It’s very possible to get 99% of all hours from wind/water/solar and the remaining 1% from biomass/biogas.

  3. Oil is carbon and is not from fossils of dinosaurs. There are hydro carbon deposits on Saturns moon, Titan. Also, back on earth, oil wells that were depleted of their oil years ago are found to be filled again. Americans logic is that there are dinosaurs still in the earth and on Titan. Reality check is that oil is not from dead dinosaurs and is renewable. Also check out the opel ecospeedster. 113 mpg at 140mph

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