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Running on renewable energy, Burlington, Vermont powers green movement forward

January 31, 2015 at 12:31 PM EDT
Burlington, Vermont, the state's largest city, recently became the first in the country to use 100 percent renewable energy for its residents' electricity needs. In a state known for socially conscious policies, the feat represents a milestone in the growing green energy movement. NewsHour's William Brangham reports on the implications for the country's green movement.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From the moment his alarm goes off early in the morning, to shaving with an electric razor for the day ahead, longtime Burlington, Vermonter Stephen Conant — much like the rest of us — lives a life powered by electricity.

It powers his toaster, his coffeemaker, the fridge. But electricity matters even more to him at work, where hundreds of light bulbs at his lighting and metal fabrication company pull power from the electrical grid.

But just as his company strives to use reclaimed and renewable materials in its products and designs, some of which Conant himself occasionally welds, that ethos has been embraced by his city as well.

Burlington recently announced that it now produces or gets more power than its citizens use. And it’s all coming from renewable sources of energy like wind and solar and hydroelectric.

STEVE CONANT: A business can’t avoid consuming resources and a lighting business like mine uses a tremendous amount of electricity. It just feels right that the electricity we are using is coming from renewable resources.

TAYLOR RICKETTS: I think it’s a big milestone for Burlington. But broader than that, it just shows that it can be done.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Taylor Ricketts is a professor of Environmental Science at the University of Vermont. He says Burlington has shown that cities can play a role in addressing our dependence on burning fossil fuels, which is the principal driver of climate change.

Burlington– yes — it’s the biggest city in the state, but it’s still a very small city in this country. You guys don’t use that much electricity. I mean how much of a difference is this really gonna make?

TAYLOR RICKETTS: Yeah, that’s a great point. But, you know, look climate change is the biggest problem we face, maybe the biggest problem we’ve ever faced. But there’s no silver bullet to fix it. It’s gonna be a million individual solutions from all over the place. And this is one of Burlington’s, right?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Ken Nolan helps run Burlington Electric, the local utility company that supplies power to the city’s 42,000 residents.

KEN NOLAN: We’re producing as much renewable energy as the city of Burlington uses in that year.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That seems like quite an accomplishment.

KEN NOLAN: It’s been a long road to get here. And I– as far as I know, we’re the only city in this country that’s actually reached this goal.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some might say, of course this is happening in Burlington — the town that’s often cast as a liberal, progressive haven — birthplace of the socially-conscious Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the city once led by Bernie Sanders, who’s the only self-declared socialist in the U.S. Senate.

But Burlington — and Vermont at large — has plenty of economic reasons to try and do their part to tackle climate change:

Vermont’s iconic, multi-million dollar industries — skiing and maple syrup — are as dependent on the climate as any industry in the U.S. And the state suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Irene — the type of storm scientists say will grow in frequency unless we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

KEN NOLAN: The city is always looking at the environmental impact. Greenhouse gas reduction is a major thing that we’re concerned about and we are always trying to improve on. But in looking at whether to buy renewable power, we really were focused on an economic decision at the time.

So our financial analysis at that time indicated to our– actually, to our surprise– that the cheapest long term financial investment for us with the least amount of risk was to move in this direction.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nolan says that switching from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy will likely save the city about $20 million dollars over the next two decades. What’s more, consumers haven’t been hit with a big price increase: while residential customers across the US have seen small but gradual increases in their utility bills over the years, Burlington’s rates haven’t increased since 2009.

TAYLOR RICKETTS: One of the big intriguing things about this is that sustainability has been a luxury, like, a niche market. To get it, whether it’s in your food or your power, you have to sort of seek it out. Look for a label, often pay a premium. And what Burlington’s done is sort of do away with that on electricity.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Here’s how they do it: about a third of Burlington’s renewable energy is produced at this biomass facility. Biomass is just a fancy word for something that gets burned to produce energy — in this case, they haul in wood from across Vermont, use the heat to make steam, and thus generate electricity.***

So that’s about 35% of Burlington’s production.

Another 20% or so is sourced from wind turbines like these on the hills of a neighboring town, and solar arrays like this one at the airport add another small amount to their total. But the biggest portion of the city’s renewable production comes from hydropower… some they source from other places, like this older hydroelectric dam in Maine, some they produce at their own plant on the Winooski river.

Water pressure from the river spins big underground turbines, which in turn generates electricity.

All this is what accounts for the city’s ability to produce as much energy from renewables as it uses in a year.

But Burlington’s efforts have attracted some criticism… Sandra Levine is a Senior Attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.

SANDRA LEVINE: Burlington is making claims that they’re providing 100% renewable power to their customer. And that’s not really accurate

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Levine is an environmental attorney, and while she commends Burlington’s renewable push, she says the city is taking some liberties with its accounting, and with what kinds of renewable energy it employs… like relying on that old Maine hydro plant, which isn’t considered as green as brand new, wind and solar facilities are….

So when you see Burlington come out publicly and say, “We’ve gone 100% renewable,” what’s your reaction?

SANDRA LEVINE: You’re on the path. But, you’re not really there. And I really look to Burlington Electric to provide some stronger leadership to really show how what they are doing is adding to the overall renewable supply for the region. Because that’s where we need to be going.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Ken Nolan argues that they have to use those older renewable facilities for now — and by proving that renewables can work reliably, and be profitable — Burlington can help spur a growing market for new renewable energy in the whole region.

KEN NOLAN: Some of our opponents, in my opinion, take a shortsighted view. They’d say they– they were purists about, well, the renewable energy should be brand new and it should be today. I want New England to be 100% renewable across New England.

The way you get there is by giving the folks who are actually building the projects the money they need to build the projects.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Taylor Ricketts says, what Burlington’s done could be replicated elsewhere — it’s not some quirk of geography or weather that got the city to where it is now.

TAYLOR RICKETTS: There’s nothing magic about Burlington in terms of where it sits. It’s not a lot windier here, or a lot more rivers here, and certainly not a lot sunnier here than lots of parts of the U.S. It was just a bunch of decisions made over ten years or more, to get towards renewable energy.

***Editor’s note: This video and transcript was updated on Feb. 11, 2015 to remove a reference to the wood being burned at the Burlington biomass facility as being “scrap” wood, and a reference to its smokestack emissions being “just water vapor.” Here’s why: after our initial broadcast, many viewers correctly pointed out that it’s not only “scrap” wood that’s burned (some trees are also specifically logged), and it’s not just the very visible water vapor that’s being emitted (several additional pollutants are also released from this and other biomass facilities over the course of a year). These viewers argued we were giving an overstated impression of the environmental attributes of the plant, and we agree, so we took out those two specific references.