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Burlington, Vermont Leads the Charge in 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Sherrell Dorsey headshotWords by Sherrell Dorsey

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This article is part of a series on “The ROI of Sustainability,” written with the support of MeterHero. MeterHero helps companies and organizations offset their water and energy footprints through consumer engagement. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

What’s the formula for building a green city? Energy experts in Burlington, Vermont, chipped away at the solution for over a decade and recently crossed the finish line -- announcing the city’s achievement of 100 percent renewable energy. More than 40,000 of the city’s residents enjoy the convenience of powering their homes using cleaner energy alternatives.

Not too shabby for Vermont’s largest city, now considered a major power player (pun intended) that provides pointers to cities across the United States. Their advice? There are no tricks or complex methods to achieving an electrical grid powered by 100 percent renewables. Behind the know-how of its divestment from fossil fuels, experts weighed in on the simplicity for cities to elect cleaner, price-fixed alternatives that will have little-to-no impact on customer bills.

But wait, there’s much more to learn from the socially-conscious city also known as the birthplace of the beloved Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Through its leadership, Burlington debunks the ubiquitous myth that the road to renewables is paved with pricey technologies and unimaginable rate hikes.

“There’s this notion that renewable energy is an expensive luxury and will raise customer rates — this is simply untrue. We haven’t raised rates since 2009 in this city, and we don’t anticipate raising them anytime soon,” Neale Lunderville told TriplePundit. Lunderville serves as the general manager for Burlington Electric Department (BED) — the city’s local public utility company.

Divorcing themselves from the fossil fuel energy market throughout the years has been the result of strategic and calculated decisions to create a fuel mix of alternative energy resources that include biomass, wind, solar, hydropower and natural gas. It is also worth noting that a majority of these sources are produced locally, statewide or within the New England states.

Additionally, BED owns several electricity generation stations, which include:


  • Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station: A wood-fired station powered by 95 percent wood residue (i.e. bark, shavings or clean urban wood waste). At least 75 percent of the wood is delivered by rail, and most comes from within 60 miles of McNeil.

  • Winooski One Hydroelectric Generating Station: Purchased in Septmber and located on the Winooski River, this facility averages an annual net output of 30 million kilowatt-hours which is fed directly into BED’s distribution system.

  • Airport solar: In February, work commenced on the commercial installation of a 500-kilowatt rooftop solar panel atop the Burlington International Airport parking garage. Over the anticipated 30-year life of the project, BED expects to save $3.5 million in power costs, with an average of approximately $117,000 saved by customers annually.

  • Gas turbine: BED's gas turbine produces up to 25 megawatts and is primarily used as a peaking unit and in emergencies.

  • Wind turbine: The small wind turbine is located at the Pine Street offices of BED, and serves as a demonstration project designed to determine how much electricity can be generated from the wind at the lake-front site.

Putting a price on the future


As the price for fossil fuel fluctuates at the mercy of market conditions, Lunderville admitted that BED wanted to remove uncertainty from the utility company’s energy supply. So far, it has worked.

“Planning for oil prices at $2 or $200 a barrel isn’t sustainable. The constant yo-yoing of the traditional fossil fuel market is a tremendous barrier," Lunderville explained. “When we rely on our resources that are abundant in Vermont, like wind, water and solar, we can plan our budgets much more closely and remain price-sensitive to our customers who, in the end, are the most impacted by the rise and fall of the cost of electricity.”

Seemingly, residents have agreed with the city’s long-standing campaign to invest in and rely on greener energy sources. In fact, according to a press release denoting the city’s purchase of the Winooski One Hydroelectric Facility last year, the bond received unanimous support from the Burlington Electric Commission, a unanimous vote from the Burlington City Council, and more than 79 percent approval from the voters of Burlington.

Ken Nolan, BED’s manager of power resources, added: “During the time the bond is being paid off, Winooski One power will be very cost-competitive with BED’s other market alternatives. After the 20-year bond is fully paid, Burlington ratepayers will continue to receive power for decades to come, and the only cost will be that of operating the plant.”

Managing for natural disasters


Discussing a city’s renewable energy program must also call for contingencies when it comes to ill weather conditions and extreme power outages -- seen most recently in the state of Vermont during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

Mitigating against future power outages falls on BED’s diverse grouping of energy sources to lessen the burden on the grid when one resource is compromised, Lunderville said. He also mentioned that the continued task for utilities as an industry is to be able to provide power on-demand when everything else fails.

Responding to responsibility


Burlington's successes are indicative of the city's will toward building socially and environmentally conscious systems that lessens their burden on the environment.

Other cities have the opportunity to use Burlington as a case study in environmental responsibility and citizen advocacy where both customers and businesses benefit.

Image via Patrick Spencer on Wikimedia Commons

Sherrell Dorsey headshotSherrell Dorsey

Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.

Read more stories by Sherrell Dorsey