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Burlington, Vermont is that state’s largest city, with a population of 42,000 people. It describes itself as “forward-thinking” which is what you’d expect from a city that once elected Senator Bernie Sanders as its mayor. So it’s no surprise that it recently became the first U.S. city of any decent size to run entirely on renewable electricity.

BurlingtonElectricDept
Renewable electricity generation isn’t the only way this forward-thinking city is addressing climate change, the environment and sustainability. Burlington Electric Department has aggressive energy efficiency programs and boasts that it uses less electricity now than it did in 1989. Photo credit: Burlington Electric Department

Climate change is the biggest problem we face, maybe the biggest problem we’ve ever faced,” University of Vermont environmental science professor Taylor Ricketts told NPR. “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?”

The city’s publicly owned utility, the Burlington Electric Department (BED), says in its mission statement, “BED will continue to be a leader in sustainability by producing power that is as clean and as locally produced as possible. BED will continue to treat the environment with the utmost respect and will continue to influence decisions and public policy that enhance environmental quality, the use of renewable resources, and the sustainability of Burlington.”

The city lives up to that mission by acquiring its energy in diverse ways, including biomass, hydroelectric, solar and wind. Its biggest power generator is hydro, which the city acquires from dams both locally and elsewhere in the region. Its biomass facility, the McNeil generating station, provides another 30 percent of its power. It runs on burning wood chips, although it can run on natural gas or oil on an interruptible basis. The wood chips are the residue of the region’s logging industry and come primarily from within 60 miles of the city, reducing transportation costs. Wind turbines and solar panels provide another 20 percent of its electricity.

In addition, BED says, “McNeil is equipped with a series of air quality control devices that limit the particulate stack emissions to one-tenth the level allowed by Vermont state regulation. McNeil’s emissions are one one-hundredth of the allowable federal level. The only visible emission from the plant is water vapor during the cooler months of the year.”

Renewable electricity generation isn’t the only way this forward-thinking city is addressing climate change, the environment and sustainability. BED has aggressive energy efficiency programs and boasts that it uses less electricity now than it did in 1989. And despite its small size, Burlington already has nine charging stations for electric vehicles.

And contrary to those who insist that renewably generated electricity is an expensive luxury that only a bunch of Phish-loving Vermont hippies will pay for, Ken Nolan of BED told NPR that the switch to renewables was initially driven by economic concerns and will likely save the city $20 million over the next decade.

“Greenhouse gas reduction is a major thing that we’re concerned about and we are always trying to improve on,” he said. “But in looking at whether to buy renewable power, we really were focused on an economic decision at the time. 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.”

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