The City of Burlington, Vermont is known for its progressive student population and proximity to stunning autumn foliage and variety of ski terrain. Though the population of the city, clocking in at 42,000, isn’t large by national standards, Burlington is the state of Vermont’s largest city and has gained national recognition for its achievements in renewable energy. Most notably, the city was the first in the United States to draw 100% of its energy from renewable sources in 2014.
Here’s how Burlington reached this major energy milestone, what the city’s doing now – and how your city can do the same.
Burlington’s leap to 100% renewable energy
In 2004, only 25% of Burlington’s energy came from renewable sources. However, just 10 years later, the city had achieved 100% renewable energy. What changed?
“The Burlington Electric Commission at the time had made a commitment to get off of fossil fuels, to move away from nuclear and towards renewable resources,” says Darren Springer, the General Manager of the Burlington Electric Department. That pushed the city to invest in wind and solar production, in addition to the biomass plant that had already been operating since 1984.
In 2012, the city had the opportunity to buy the Winooski One Hydro plant, a deal that became official in 2014 and pushed the city over the edge to achieve 100% renewable energy. Acquiring the hydroelectric facility along the Winooski River meant that the city owned or contracted enough renewable sources to match the city’s total energy needs.
The city, which once relied mostly on coal, currently gets its energy from four different sources: biomass, hydroelectric, wind and solar. Biomass, hydro and wind each contribute approximately one-third of Burlington’s energy supply, with solar contributing 1%. Burlington’s easy access to wood, due to the region’s logging industry, and to water means these are its predominant sources of power. But the city has still pushed for solar energy projects, including a large-scale solar array on the airport’s roof.
When Burlington produces a surplus of energy, as it has done on an annual basis over the past ten years, that energy is sold on the ISO-New England wholesale market. Although Burlington has not needed an energy credit, if it did, it would come from ISO-New England as well, in the form of renewable energy.
“We try to be a bit conservative in our planning, and to have more than 100% renewable energy,” Springer says.
The biomass-fueled McNeil Generating Station has been operating for more than 35 years. (Photo courtesy of the Burlington Electric Department)
The affordability of renewable energy
A misconception many have about making the switch to renewables is that there are few economic benefits. Burlington has proven this wrong. For this city, “moving towards 100% renewable energy was part of a financial strategy,” Springer says.
Local officials say that sourcing 100% renewable energy improved Burlington Electric’s credit rating.
“Making the switch to renewables has been recognized by our credit rating agency as a positive economic value for the city, not only because of the power markets and how we use our renewable energy to benefit customers, but also as a hedge against future carbon regulations.”
The switch has been a positive financial investment for the residents of Burlington as well. During the period of time that Burlington was investing in its renewable energy sources, from 2009 to 2021, the city didn’t raise its electric rates.
Currently, the Burlington Electric Department offers incentives for customers to install heat pumps or buy an electric vehicle, electric mower or electric bicycle.
During a summer with notably high gas prices, the purchase of an electric car has been a positive economic switch for many Burlington residents as well. “If you use our off-peak rate, you pay an equivalent of $0.70 per gallon of gas, use 100% renewable electricity, and keep more money in the local economy,” Springer says.
Next up: Net Zero by 2030
In 2019, Burlington’s mayor Miro Weinberger unveiled the city’s plans to go Net Zero Energy by 2030.
The city’s Net Zero Energy roadmap seeks to wean Burlington’s heating and ground transportation industries off of fossil fuels and transition to carbon-neutral sources. The report notes that the city’s building sector comprises nearly three-quarters of Burlington’s energy consumption, most of which is used for heating buildings and supplied by natural gas. Almost all the rest of the city’s energy usage, officials say, comprises petroleum used to power vehicles.
But as of late 2021, Burlington’s mayor confirmed the city is still on track to meet this goal. Over the next five years, they also hope to improve energy efficiency in rental housing by requiring property owners to weatherize rental units.
“We have the most ambitious climate goal of any community in the country,” Springer says, attributing this in part to Vermont’s forward-looking population when it comes to environmental initiatives.
“We’re owned by the community and are a reflection of our community’s values,” Springer says. “I think we just have an environmentally-conscious population. We were one of the first communities to invest in energy efficiency in the 80s and 90s. It’s not surprising to me knowing the history of Vermont that we led with 100% renewable energy or that we would be trying to lead with Net Zero now.”
For some Burlington residents, though, the city still has a long way to go.
“The goals are great, it’s just that the urgency and action isn’t always there,” said Anthony Rossman, a resident who has owned solar panels in the city since 2005. He has to drive to the city of South Burlington to charge his electric car. Rossman also notes that Burlington lacks a community solar farm, like he’s seen in other cities.
Leading the way
Since 2014, cities including Aspen, Colorado (population: 7,539), and Greensburg, Kansas (55,716) have joined Burlington in becoming 100% powered by renewables, and in 2018, over one hundred U.S. cities and states including California and Hawaii pledged to do the same.
If your city is looking to move towards sourcing from renewables, Springer says that the first step is commitment to a goal.
“From wherever you’re starting from, there should be an ambitious goal with resources behind it,” Springer says. “It’s easy to set a goal, but hard to put forward the financial and staffing resources to get you there.”
Additionally, experts recommend diversifying your energy sources. “Just like with the stock market, you wouldn’t want to put all of your investment into one stock,” Springer says. You want to diversify your portfolio because each source has different attributes.” Hydro power is strong at certain times of year, while wind tends to be stronger in production at night or throughout the winter. Solar peaks in production in the summertime.
“Having all of those resources, you can maximize both production and economic value,” Springer says.
Sasha Weilbaker is a sustainability-focused writer in Burlington, Vermont.