Shortly before Darren Springer interviewed for a job at the Burlington Electric Department (BED) in 2016, the city proudly proclaimed that it would become a “net zero energy city” by 2030. That meant no more gas or oil to heat residents’ homes and swapping out gas-powered cars for electric vehicles and more public transportation.
“I said, that’s got to be one of the most ambitious goals anywhere in the country,” Springer, who is now BED’s general manager, tells The Verge. “That was one of the things that drew me to this work at Burlington Electric.” Since then, he’s worked to get the city on track to meet that goal. And while the target might have been unheard of in 2016, it’s now just one early example of the splashy renewable energy aspirations that more and more governments seem to be dreaming up.
As of September 2020, 452 cities and 22 regions had made commitments to slash and offset their planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions, reaching net-zero CO2 pollution by the middle of the century. It’s all part of a race to stop the worst effects of climate change from becoming reality, which scientists say requires the entire world to nearly completely gut greenhouse gas emissions by that deadline.
President Joe Biden is setting the US on a path to run entirely on clean electricity by 2035. That’s not an easy target, considering renewables only make up about 20 percent of the country’s power mix today. Luckily, Biden, and other state and city leaders with similar aims, have roadmaps from communities like Burlington, Vermont that are already ahead. The city offers a glimpse into what a clean energy future might look like for the rest of the nation, what it might take to get there, and which potential pitfalls it would be best to avoid.
“Having such an ambitious goal encourages creativity and innovation because you have to find ways to scale up, to pilot different approaches, to try something [and] fail in some cases, and then evolve your approach,” Springer says.
The city has largely tried to get its residents on board with its clean energy plans through carrots rather than regulatory sticks. It’s focused on incentives, like rebates for residents who install energy-efficient heat pumps. City leaders have gotten some pushback for tougher stances, like when the City Council proposed a change to Burlington’s city charter that would allow it to impart an “impact” fee on homes and buildings that still rely on fossil fuels for heating. Voters ultimately approved the measure this year.
Voters will have to approve proposed fees again if the charter change is approved by the state legislature. But if they do, it shows some of the distinct advantages the city has that helped it turn to renewable energy so early. Its residents, city leaders, and a local utility all aligned on environmental efforts. Since the 1960s, people have flocked to Vermont in search of an alternative way of life — often escaping big cities or looking for greener living. One of its most famous transplants is Green New Deal champion Senator Bernie Sanders, who moved there from New York City in 1964 and eventually served as Burlington’s mayor throughout the 1980s.
“Environmental leadership began in the late ‘80s, and we have really been able to sustain that,” says current Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger. “You need just two things if you want to do this: you need the political will to forge this kind of climate emergency progress. And then secondly, you do need technical proficiency.”
For Burlington, its municipally owned utility is the technical arm fulfilling much of the political leadership’s aims on climate change. It was founded more than 100 years ago after residents got fed up with high rates from the previous privately owned utility.
“Burlington had a long history of local control, local management … People in the city are involved and know where their energy comes from,” says Jennie Stephens, director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “That is something that’s unique, that not all communities and cities have, that allows Burlington to be really creative and innovative early on.”
Today, the city’s control over the utility makes it much easier to enact changes without facing a power struggle. The city essentially manages everything from energy generation to distribution.
For cities that get their power from investor-owned utilities, she says, “it’s this whole complicated, constant negotiation with the utility … the tendency with a lot of these organizations is to try to keep everything the same, because it’s worked and they’ve been making money.”
One of the biggest advantages for Burlington is that they have easy access to both water and wood. Over 30 percent of Burlington’s electricity comes from burning wood, much of it waste leftover from the region’s logging industry. Another 40 percent comes from hydropower, which made Burlington the first city to run on 100 percent renewable electricity in 2014. Wind provides another 25 percent. Just over 1 percent of Burlington’s electricity came from solar last year.
The city’s reliance on wood and water allows it to sidestep some of the infrastructure headaches that can come with solar and wind. Electricity grids were built to facilitate a constant flow of energy from fossil-fueled power plants. Those old grids don’t currently have the storage — aka batteries — built in to store energy for use when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Burning wood and spinning water turbines also generates a constant flow of energy, making it more compatible with the existing grid. Nationally, the transition to clean energy is going to require a major grid upgrade to accommodate more intermittent sources of renewable energy.
Burning wood and damming up waterways have a smaller impact on the climate than fossil fuels. But they’re also more controversial than solar or wind. Larger, older dams are notorious for wrecking ecosystems. Wood-burning, meanwhile, comes with other pollutants that can affect air quality.
“It’s a balancing of different factors, you know. We want renewable energy, we want to mitigate impacts from different projects,” says Springer. “From all of the different literature that we’ve looked at, it’s far more beneficial to have renewables than to use fossil fuels.”
Cities looking to make renewable energy goals will need to find their own balance. They’ll also have to take into account who might be bearing the burdens of that transition whether it’s air pollution from burning biomass like wood, or some households seeing higher electricity bills from utilities shouldering the costs of building new energy infrastructure. “This transformation is an opportunity to invest in people and communities in very different ways. And it’s also a real risk if we don’t,” Stephens says.
There’s been a reckoning within the mainstream environmental movement to ensure that the benefits of clean energy are felt equally, and that low-income households aren’t disproportionately saddled with the costs and burdens of an energy transition. Stephens points to New York state as a good example of finding equitable solutions: it plans to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2040 and stipulated that 35 to 40 percent of the benefits from new climate and energy policy go to disadvantaged communities.
Moving beyond Burlington, there are more grassroots efforts to build equitable, green energy infrastructure. The nonprofit, Indigenous-led Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is developing what it calls a “net-zero energy” community for members of the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The goal is for the 34-acre development’s power to come completely from renewable energy, for now primarily solar.
At the moment, the homes, apartment buildings, and community center that are part of the development still only get about half their power from solar. They haven’t been able to figure out the intermittency problem yet with solar, and batteries are still too costly. (Thunder Valley has also had setbacks from more extreme weather, like baseball-sized hail that actually broke through solar panels last year.)
Thunder Valley recently put out a request for proposals on how to get its development the rest of the way to its goal. And in the meantime, it’s leaned on traditional building styles to make structures more energy efficient, like including large south-facing doors that allow more sunlight into homes to heat floors. Similar to Burlington, another strength is how involved residents are in crafting how the development progresses, says Chance Renville, a project manager at Thunder Valley. “Tribal members are really the designers and the ones shaping and making this place what it is,” says Renville.
“We’ve lived in harmony with Mother Earth for generations, and more recently we have gotten away from that,” says Renville. “But I think it’s important for us to really take a look at what we’re doing and how we can get back to living more sustainably.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for moving communities to a more sustainable future. Communities and leaders will have to take stock of the strengths and resources each community already has — whether that’s traditional knowledge, strong civic participation, or existing policies and infrastructure.
“There are just so many good reasons to have an ambitious goal and to strive for it, even if it requires trial and error,” Burlington’s Springer says. “Even if it feels at first that it might be more than is achievable, I think we’re trying to prove that it can be achievable.”