Preserving the Environment

Burlington, Vt. is Leading America into a Future of Clean Energy

September 23, 2014
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Burlington, Vt. is Leading America into a Future of Clean Energy
Burlington's total electricity supplies are powered by wind, water and biomass. David McNew/Getty Images
This state's largest town reaches an important milestone in the fight against climate change.

Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, is illustrating just what a greener future could look like.

The city now touts that 100 percent of its electricity is powered by renewable sources including wind, water and biomass. The Burlington Electric Department reached the notable figure following the purchase of  the Winooski 1 Hydroelectric Facility, located on the Winooski River, earlier this month.

While Burlington’s 42,000 residents have been encouraging electric utility providers to make the switch to greener sources, the city has been talking about achieving the milestone for around a decade. But in 2008, officials began developing an actual strategy.

“The transition in thought from 2004 to 2008 was ‘We want to do this’ to ‘This actually makes economic sense for us to do this,'” says Ken Nolan, the manager of power resources for Burlington Electric.

That “economic sense” means that residents will avoid rate increases, and according to Nolan, once the bonds for the Winooski One facility are paid off (around 20 years from now), the utility will see cost savings.

“A lot of times when you buy plants like this, you end up having to increase rates initially to drop them later,” Nolan tells The Burlington Free Press,  “and we were able to buy it without any impact and then lock in the benefits in the future.”

Of course, there will be instances in which there may not be enough wind and hydro energy to supply the city, which means they may have to generate electricity from traditional fossil fuel sources. But the goal is to amass a surplus of renewable energy when conditions are right — an excess that will be sold to other utilities.

Burlington joins a statewide movement toward ending reliance on harmful fossil fuel sources. The Washington Electric Co-operative, with around 11,000 customers throughout central and northern Vermont, reached 100 percent earlier this year.

The state has set a goal of reaching 90 percent of energy — including heat, electricity and transportation — from renewable resources by 2050. “We’re now in a position where we’re supplying Burlington residents with sources that are renewable,” Nolan says. “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.”

Around the country, more local governments and municipalities are working toward transitioning powering with renewable resources. For instance, after a tornado leveled Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, part of reconstruction included the installation of a 12.5-megawatt wind farm that began generating electricity in excess.

As more cities ponder ways to become greener cities, Burlington is proof that it can — and should — be done.

MORE: The United States’s First Carbon-Neutral City Is…

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