This Issue
 
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Burlington, Vermont, is completely powered by renewable energy and on track to become a net-zero city.
WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder
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Miro Weinberger is the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Header: Opening image: The Burlington Electric Department
124-kW rooftop solar array at its Pine Street headquarters facility.

There’s a duality to the greening of Burlington, the most populous city in Vermont. It’s at once the result of decades of incremental, forward-thinking decisions, as well as a headlong dive into sustainability on this side of the 21st century. Its homes and buildings are reaping the rewards of energy efficiency efforts that date back three decades, and yet sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy—something Burlington achieved three years ago—happened inside of 10 years.

 

At full load, the plant generates 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity, about enough for the needs of Burlington. Photos: Adam Frehm

At full load, the plant generates 50 megawatts (MW) of electricity, about enough for the needs of Burlington. Photos: Adam Frehm

The city consumes less electricity today than it did in 1989. Now, there are initiatives underway to put thousands of electric cars on the streets, rewrite zoning laws to encourage Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard redevelopment downtown, and develop a Burlington 2030 district. Burlington is also taking aim at becoming a net-zero city within 15 years—no pipe dream, given its history.

 

And to hear its leaders tell it, the secrets of weaving sustainability into the fabric of this community of 42,000 aren’t secrets at all. “There were two big reasons for our success: political will and deciding to make progress in a given area, then resourcing the effort with skilled professionals,” says Miro Weinberger, who was elected Burlington’s mayor in 2012. “I think just about any community that commits to making an effort, sustains that political will, and resources with a skilled team will see progress.”

 

Located on the edge of Lake Champlain about 45 miles from the Canadian border, Burlington is the urban center for a rural landscape of Green Mountains and black diamond slopes. Tourism and snow-related recreation contribute billions to the state’s economy, and both industries face significant threats from climate change. Preserving the breathtaking beauty of northern Vermont has helped residents find common ground across the partisan divide. In 1970, under a Republican governor, the state legislature passed the Land Use and Development Act, a piece of legislation aimed at balancing development with environmental welfare.

 

Neale Lunderville, general manager of Burlington Electric Department. The wood chip piles at McNeil are limited in size and are monitored to ensure they do not reach the early stages of decomposition.

“We love our natural environment, we want to keep it as beautiful as it’s been, and that’s an ethic that cuts across generations and political parties,” says Neale Lunderville, general manager of Burlington Electric Department, the municipally-owned power utility. “…I’m a Republican. I work for a Democratic mayor in a progressive city, home of Bernie Sanders. There’s something we all agree on about renewable energy.”

 

In the late 1970s, Burlington Electric decided to swap a coal-fired power plant with the McNeil Generating Station, a 50-MW biomass plant on the Winooski River that generates electricity with wood chips from sustainably harvested forests—the first major step toward the city’s renewable energy achievements. (Today, the McNeil station accounts for half of the city’s electricity.)

 

In 1989, five years after the plant came online, Burlington Electric started offering energy efficiency incentives. “If you looked inside many of the homes around the city, you’d see good air sealing around the windows, high-quality insulation in older buildings, compact fluorescents and LEDs—the evidence of more than three decades of energy efficiency efforts,” says Weinberger.

 

By 2004, the city was deriving a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources. Around the same time, city leaders decided to stop purchasing power from the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. “The city needed to make a proactive, intentional decision: If we’re not going to buy nuclear energy, what are we going to buy?” Weinberger says. That, he said, sparked its move toward 100 percent renewable electricity.

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The energy produced by Georgia Mountain Community Wind is meeting the needs of 3,368 average Vermont households.

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Jennifer Green, sustainability coordinator for the city of Burlington, Vermont. Photo: Adam Frehm

After developing a portfolio based around the wind—from Burlington’s highest points you can see the four-turbine, 10-MW wind farm on Georgia Mountain—solar, and the wood-fired McNeil station, nearly 80 percent of voters approved a $12 million bond to buy Winooski One, a 7.4-MW hydroelectric dam on the Winooski River, in 2014. That same year, the facility made Burlington the first American city to derive its entire electricity portfolio from renewable energy.

 

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Jenna Antonino DiMare, executive director of the Vermont Green Building Network. Photo: Adam Frehm

Whatever opposition to the city’s all-in approach to renewable power that might have existed has been muted by the bottom line. By converting the energy it produces into high-value renewable energy credits, selling them to other utilities, buying lower-cost credits to cover their portfolio, and using the revenue to offset what they charge customers, Burlington Electric hasn’t raised its electric rates since 2009. “This is where the conventional wisdom of renewables gets turned on its head: Everybody thinks renewables are going to cost more money and that if you want to be 100 percent renewable you have to pay more. We’re here to tell you that you don’t,” Lunderville says. “You have to be creative—and we are creative—but there are ways to do this without breaking the bank.”

 

When the city drew international attention for its renewable energy achievements—news crews from Paris to South Korea descended on the city—it put a spotlight on a culture of sustainability that had already taken shape inside Burlington. The Intervale Center, a 29-year-old, 350-acre, nonprofit urban farm along the Winooski River that also leases land to organic growers, supplies $1.4 million of locally grown food and other goods to the area each year. Eco-conscious brands like Seventh Generation are headquartered in Burlington. The University of Vermont, an early adopter of green building practices, now requires all new construction and major renovations to achieve LEED Silver at minimum.

 

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The Winooski One Hydro Plant averages an annual net output of 30 million kWh, which is fed directly into the Burlington Electric Department’s distribution system.

In 2000, the city developed the Burlington Legacy Plan, an early document describing the city’s interconnected approach to sustainability. “It was novel at the time to have all of these people sitting around a table, talking about how the city could meet the needs of current residents while honoring the demands and needs of future generations,” says Jennifer Green, sustainability coordinator for the City of Burlington. Around the same time, the city created the first iteration of its Climate Action Plan, a blueprint of key strategies for reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

 

More recently, Burlington became one of 17 North American cities to establish a 2030 District. The public–private partnership aims to reduce energy consumption, water use, and transportation emissions in existing buildings by 50 percent—and make new and larger construction projects carbon neutral—by 2030. Since launching the 2030 District in April, 2.2 million square feet of building space in Burlington have been committed to those ambitions. “By establishing the economic case for these reductions, the District helps property owners increase asset value, reduce operating costs, and create a healthier community,” says Jenna Antonino DiMare, director of the Burlington 2030 District and executive director of the Vermont Green Building Network, which is affiliated with USGBC.

 

This fall, the city is aiming to issue new zoning guidelines that, as drafted at press time, would require all new buildings above 25,000 square feet to achieve LEED Gold certification or better. Then there’s Burlington Town Center, a five-acre, three-block redevelopment project expected to break ground this fall—and aiming for LEED Gold—that reimagines the downtown mall as a mixed-use neighborhood with some 270 apartments, offices, and retail spaces. The redevelopment is a key part of a proposed district energy heating system that would help reduce the city’s overall greenhouse gas footprint by 20 percent, in part by capturing waste heat from the McNeil station and using it to heat the downtown area and institutional buildings.

 

It would be a springboard to Burlington’s latest grand ambition: the city recently decided to go net zero across electricity, thermal, and ground transportation. “We’re a long way from that now,” Weinberger admits. Vermont’s existing housing stock is one of the oldest in the country, a complicating factor in enhancing the energy efficiency of Burlington’s buildings, and nine in ten homes use natural gas. And at the same time that the city has made its renewable energy strides, transportation-related emissions have risen, accounting for roughly half of Burlington’s carbon footprint.

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Burlington International Airport’s 500-kWh solar array on the roof of its parking garage is expected to generate $3.5 million in savings over 30 years. Photo Courtesy of Encore Renewable Energy.

Artist rendering of the new Burlington Town Center at the corner of Cherry and Pine streets. Photo courtesy of Devonwood.

Artist rendering of the new Burlington Town Center at the corner of Cherry and Pine streets. Photo courtesy of Devonwood.

Still, those challenges haven’t paralyzed Burlington’s leadership or its residents. There are plans to nearly quadruple the miles of bike routes within the city while creating a safe, wide transportation network that encourages walking and cycling. Burlington Electric recently began offering $1,200 rebates to purchase or lease electric vehicles; and the city is home to CarShare Vermont, the first nonprofit car-sharing service in the country. And electricity isn’t a settled issue: The number of solar installations has bloomed from 25 to 150 during Weinberger’s five years as mayor; in 2015, Burlington International Airport installed a 2,000-panel, 500-kW solar array on the roof of its parking garage.

 

The wood chips at McNeil mostly come from within 60 miles of the station. Ninety-five percent comes from logging residue and cull material created when harvesting higher value wood products. Photo: Adam Frehm

The wood chips at McNeil mostly come from within 60 miles of the station. Ninety-five percent comes from logging residue and cull material created when harvesting higher value wood products. Photo: Adam Frehm

With the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, individual communities have taken on an outsized role in curbing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And while Burlington is an eager participant in that effort, some residents hesitate at their home being cast as a bastion of city-scale sustainability. “My hesitation is this sense that Burlington has everything figured out, because we haven’t,” says Green, the city’s sustainability coordinator. “Sustainability is very elusive. You want the best quality of life for every resident—regardless of where they come from, what they do for a living, what their sexual orientation is—not only the folks who are here today but for those who will be here in generations to come. What that will mean and how that will look is hard to articulate. We’re on the right track, but there’s still more work to do.”

 

Still, Burlington remains a case study for what can happen when a community marshals support for sustainability and backs it up with action. “It was only a decade from when we went from 25 percent to 100 percent of our energy from renewable sources,” Weinberger says. “There’s no doubt that there’s power in incremental, accumulated impact. At the same time, I think the Burlington story shows that change can happen relatively quickly.” However fast or slow, this much is true: A city on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain is a beacon of possibility.