Published on November 25th, 2019 | by John Farrell0
Voices of 100%: When 100% Renewable Electricity Isn’t Enough, Burlington Targets Net Zero
November 25th, 2019 by John Farrell
Originally published at ilsr.org.
More than 100 cities have committed to 100% renewable electricity transitions, with most hoping to get there by 2030 or 2050. Burlington, Vermont already achieved this goal five years ago.
For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with two leaders in Burlington’s completed electricity transition: Mayor Miro Weinberger and Darren Springer, general manager of Burlington Electric. The three talk about why Burlington was able to reach its goal so quickly, how other cities can reach theirs too, and Burlington’s new plan to become a Net Zero Energy city.
Listen to the full episode and explore more resources, below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.
One Goal Down
Burlington was the first US city to be powered by 100% renewable electricity. Weinberger, Mayor of Burlington since 2012, oversaw the hydro plant purchase in 2014 that put Burlington over the threshold.
The utility serving the city, Burlington Electric, is a municipal utility. This means the community and its leaders make the operating decisions for the company. Mayor Weinberger appointed Springer as general manager of Burlington Electric in 2018. Together, the city and Burlington Electric have been making strides toward a completely renewable energy economy. Mayor Weinberger acknowledges that owning the utility has given Burlington an advantage:
I think it’s not an accident that it was a city with the publicly owned utility that got there first. – Mayor Miro Weinberger
Municipal utilities can advance the city’s needs without the pressure to appease shareholders. Because of this freedom, Burlington Electric was able to begin its transition to renewable energy in 2004.
Burlington, home of the socially responsible ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, is no stranger to sustainability. Mayor Weinberger mentions that the city ranks as one of the top solar cities in the country. However, the city’s renewable energy commitment goes beyond the goodwill of “Burlingtonians.” Sourcing 100% renewable electricity actually improved Burlington Electric’s credit rating, explains Weinberger. On the customer side, Burlington Electric has not raised rates since 2009. The icing on the cake? Renewable energy has brought all of these benefits to the city without sacrificing reliability. Thanks to an energy mix that includes biomass and hydroelectric generation, Burlington Electric can provide reliable service using 100% renewables.
It’s really about having a diversity of sources and not putting all of your eggs in any one basket. – Darren Springer
Burlington participates in the local market for renewable energy credits (RECs). Some critics of RECs believe that trading credits does not lead to more renewable capacity, but Mayor Weinberger is confident that “there has been a very direct relationship between [Burlington Electric] utilizing the credits and the creation of new renewable facilities,” he said.
Next Step: a Net Zero Energy City
Burlington is already powered by 100% renewable electricity, but its leaders want to do more. The city has committed to becoming a Net Zero Energy City by 2030. This means that along with electricity, citywide heating and transportation must all be carbon neutral. As most other Ready for 100 cities are committed to reaching the same goal by 2050, Burlington must make quick work of a total energy overhaul.
We believe this to be perhaps the most ambitious local climate goal of any city, any region, in the country. – Miro Weinberger
Burlington has done more than make an ambitious goal. In September 2019, the city’s electric department released a roadmap on how to get there. According to Mayor Weinberger, the city has already done 20% of the work toward its goal. Moving forward, their strategy is “electrifying everything,” says Weinberger.
Electrifying the city’s energy use will require rapid adoption of new technologies. Heat pumps are an emerging alternative to gas furnaces, but concerns have been raised about their performance in cold weather. Springer is confident that heat pump technology is the way forward. He has installed systems in his own home and praises the new cold climate technology, which works even when temperatures drop below zero. Burlington Electric is offering incentives to help customers, especially low- and moderate-income customers, switch to heat pumps.
Essentially the Burlington Net Zero Energy City roadmap says we can get to a decarbonized society. We can get where we need to go and save money for communities. – Miro Weinberger
The technology to becoming net zero cities already exists. All that is needed, argues Weinberger, is the political will to make it happen.
Putting the Roadmap to Use
With an ultimate goal of Net Zero Energy by 2030, Burlington has little time to spare. Increasing energy efficiency and reducing city-wide energy use is a necessary first step to reaching the goal.
To address both equity and energy use, the City Council has recently approved a recommendation to weatherize all rental properties in Burlington. Since property owners have little incentive to weatherize homes if they don’t pay the utility bills, residents with some of the lowest incomes are left with the highest carbon footprints and energy costs. By putting the responsibility of sealing up leaks and insulating homes on property owners, Burlington could reduce the energy burden on low-income residents and reduce the city’s overall energy usage. Although Weinberger says the city has yet to set a timeline, he hopes this can be done in the next five years.
We have rolled out a variety of incentives that are aimed at really making sure that these technologies are not only available to households that can go out and buy the latest model Teslas. – Miro Weinberger
For more on building codes and other policy tools cities use to promote energy democracy, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Replicating Burlington’s Success
Both Weinberger and Springer believe that Burlington’s success could be universal. Although Burlington has a municipal utility, both interviewees point out that Vermont’s largest utility Green Mountain Power has found a way to advance renewable energy as an investor-owned utility.
Ultimately, Weinberger believes that political will is the only requirement for a clean energy transition. Springer agrees and says that setting an ambitious goal is an important step to build community excitement. Additionally, Springer encourages the use of the regulatory structure to phase out fossil fuels:
Utilities are regulated monopolies when it comes to providing an electric service, but in the transportation sector for example, we’re essentially upstarts that are competing against an entrenched incumbent industry with a lot of capital available. – Darren Springer
As more cities like Burlington pave the way, it will only become easier for others to follow their footsteps — or roadmaps.
We have a chance to really make some of these early adopter technologies much more mainstream and have an impact far beyond the borders of Burlington. – Darren Springer
For more background on the issues discussed, check out:
- Burlington’s Net Zero Energy Roadmap
For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is the 16th episode of our special Voices of series, and 90th of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.