Voices of 100%: When 100% Renewable Electricity Isn’t Enough, Burlington Targets Net Zero — Episode 90 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 20 Nov 2019 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

More than 100 cities have committed to 100% renewable electricity transitions, with most hoping to get there by 2030 or 2050. Burlington, Vt., 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.

Miro Weinberger 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.
Darren Springer Just setting the goal and getting it out there that that’s a shared goal, as the mayor talks about with political will, is a really powerful tool.
John Farrell Only a handful of more than 100 U.S. cities committed to one hundred percent renewable energy have achieved this goal, but Burlington, Vermont is one of them. In this episode I’m joined by Burlington mayor Miro Weinberger and general manager of the city’s electric department, Darren Springer to explain how the city reached this lofty goal back in 2014 and to talk about the city’s recently launched roadmap to expand the achievement to all sectors of the local economy, from transportation to heating buildings. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and this is our special Voices of 100 series focused on local leaders and their pursuit of 100% renewable energy. It’s all part of Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local renewable energy. Miro and Darren, welcome to the program.
Miro Weinberger It’s great to be with you John. Thanks for having us.
Darren Springer Thanks John.
John Farrell You know, as I mentioned in the introduction, we’ve been interviewing dozens of cities about them making commitments and now pursuing efforts to get to 100% renewable electricity and we’re really excited to talk to folks with the city that already accomplished this goal five years ago. I guess one thing I’m really curious about, because we have so many cities across the country, different sizes, different States, how important was it to reaching that goal that Burlington is served by a city owned utility? And Miro, I was hoping maybe you could take a stab at this.
Miro Weinberger Well, I think it was maybe possible to do with a different structure, but probably would have been much less likely. I think it’s not an accident that it was a city with the publicly owned utility that got there first. And I say that because you know, I’ve come to think there were really two essential ingredients to reaching the goal. One was political will. It was a decision back in 2004, first for the city to stop purchasing nuclear energy and to replace it with a goal of getting to one hundred percent renewables. That was the essential first step. The city was only buying approximately 25% renewables at that time. And in 2014 a decade later, I had the really privileged honor of being the mayor as we completed that journey and purchased a hydroelectric facility that got us over the final, that milestone, that threshold, that political will was essential. It was sustained throughout that decade period of time. The other element of it was excellent technical expertise at the Burlington electric department. I think with a city owned utility, the directness of, of setting a goal that, you, is at some level political, easier to achieve than probably would have been likely in, some kind of corporate setting where you have to balance that kind of goal maybe more explicitly or in, in different ways against a shareholder profits and whatnot. So I think it’s no accident.
John Farrell Darren I wanted to ask, Mayor Miro mentioned that we’ve got these technical challenges in some ways, and that there was great technical expertise from the electric department. I want to dive in a little bit here because this comes up a lot in conversations about a hundred percent renewable. So you know when I went to the utilities website, the Burlington electric department, first of all the website is great. It’s really easy to get to some of this information that is not easy to find for other utilities. But I wanted to look at the renewable electricity mix. You’ve got 36% coming from biomass plant, 27% from wind and then you know most of the rest from small, large hydro projects like the one that the mayor already mentioned and a small fraction from solar. And I was just curious, you know, could other cities, do you think similarly look to biomass and hydro to get to 100% and is that important for reliability, which seems to be one of these issues that comes up a lot when we talk about renewables such as wind and solar, which obviously are a little more variable
Darren Springer Right. It’s a, it’s a great question. And I think the lesson of our particular mix in becoming a hundred percent renewable is not the specific sources, cause those may vary by different regions of the country. It’s really about having a diversity of sources and not putting all of your eggs in any one basket. We have three different wind projects that are part of that portfolio. We have several different small and large hydro projects that are part of the portfolio. We have the a biomass plant which has been operating, the McNeil plant, since 1984 so that is kind of the bedrock for us we’ve built off of. Solar is becoming an increasing uh, resource. We were named by Environment America as Burlington as being the top community per capita in solar in new England and number four in the country. So we’re seeing a lot more solar coming on and um, you know, each of those resources has different attributes. Solar tends to be producing more during our summer peaks and can help reduce peak loads in the summertime. In new England wind has a different profile of production, uh, than solar. Hydro can be very reliable, biomass can be very reliable. So I think the, you know, having a diversity of resources is helpful, uh, economically. And then also, um, you know, ISO new England, our regional grid operator has the challenge of balancing all the different renewable resources that are coming online and it’s really their role to ensure that we maintain reliability in the region as we move in this direction of more renewable resources.
John Farrell Sounds like in a way that there’s an advantage to being the first mover because there are so many other resources on that grid already that Burlington is just going to be a drop in the bucket really in terms of making sure that electricity is available all hours of the day and whatnot. Do you imagine that sometime in the future cities that are trying to accomplish this goal in 2040 for example, may not be quite as easy?
Darren Springer You know, it’s an interesting question. In new England, the last numbers that I saw were only at a couple percent of our energy as a region coming from wind for example. And I’ve seen reports that show that without any significant technological change we could accommodate up to 20% wind energy in new England. We have a lot of offshore wind that’s being discussed that could add significantly to the portfolio. So I, I think that uh, between that resource between solar, which is essentially a behind the meter resource that looks more like energy efficiency for a grid operator than a generation resource in some respects. I think we have a lot of room to grow in new England and certainly a lot of room to grow in the country. We’re not heavily reliant in new England on coal, but there are regions of the country that are. So I think that there’s a lot of opportunity with these diverse renewable resources to move and certainly we’re going to see storage play a role going forward in a bigger way and being a resource bigger than it is now.
John Farrell So I want to dive really deep in the weeds for just a second because this is a, an issue I think it’s really interesting about the renewable electricity mix that you have. So the mix that you have got you the first in the nation title as a city becoming renewable. But there was some stuff I read about with renewable energy credits and at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we’ve always been a little skeptical of renewable energy credits just because we feel like if nothing else, for the average person trying to understand how renewable energy works, it creates some confusion. So could you explain a little bit, it’s on your website and I, I read about it and I’m a technical person so I think I followed it. But could you explain a little bit for the average person, what’s happened exactly with the renewable energy credits, you know some are being generated by the resources that you have, but then you’re selling some and buying some other ones. What’s happening there?
Darren Springer Sure. So Vermont, as one of the six states in new England region has a renewable energy standard, all of the different States have their own a renewable energy standard and each state values different resources differently. So we’re 100% renewable in terms of our generation resources. As we’ve discussed, the biomass, the hydro, the wind and solar. Our state policy essentially encourages to benefit our rate payers that we both buy and sell renewable energy credits, participate in the regional market. So some States may value a certain resource more than Vermont and likewise, Vermont may value a resource like hydro differently than other States. The important piece for me, I think if we, if we think about it, is we want to be 100% renewable even after all of those transactions are accounted for and we are in Burlington, we’re actually more than a hundred percent renewable. When we look at the renewable energy certificates, uh, we actually go above and beyond the a hundred percent to make sure that we’re accounting for all of the potential impacts that we would have in the regional grid. So it’s a mechanism that States have used through these renewable standards to promote new generation. Over time, we’ve seen more of our resources being used to meet our own needs as opposed to being used in the marketplace. I’ll give you a concrete example. We had a hydro project, Maine that expired or the contract expired. We, instead of continuing with the resource in Maine, we signed a new hydro contract in Vermont and we actually are using those renewable energy credits to meet our own 100%. So over time, that’s the direction that we’re trending. But in the meantime, we comply with the state’s policies and try to do the right thing for our customers and keep costs low. We haven’t raised rates since 2009 and at the same time maintain that 100% renewable portfolio.
Miro Weinberger Just if I could, uh, just amplify to I think big picture points from what Darren just said and I appreciate that he’s able to, you know, I, I my eyes, uh, spin a little bit at the class one class, two credit conversation, but at, at a big picture level, I think there’s a couple of really important things that I think it’s important that we consider when skeptics are challenging these programs. I mean, first of all, when I look at how Burlington electric department has used these credits, it has done exactly what policy makers want in terms of uh, sparking role in the creation of new renewable energy facilities. We have several wind contracts, I think at least one of which there really would not have been a market for the wind from that installation if it wasn’t for Burlington electric department being willing to commit to this long term power purchase agreement. So from everything I can see about Burlington history in using these credits, there has been a very direct relationship between BE utilizing the credits and the creation of new renewable facilities. Secondly, and I think also very important for the success of this effort is that the renewable energy credits have made possible that rate history that Darrin emphasized, we have not had an increase to customers in terms of their, the electric rates that they’re paying since 2009. More than a decade now. That overlaps heavily with this period that we were making the transition from nuclear and more traditional sources of power to renewables. And I think that’s really played a key role in sustaining the political will that has kept this moving forward. If we were incurring major costs increases every year as we pursued this path, I think we’d be having a whole level of resistance from the public towards this that we have not experienced. In fact, the end of the one time we have gone to voters for support in a bond that allowed us to get over that 100% renewable threshold. I believe it was more than 80% of the voters came out and supported that bond. So I really think from a pragmatic level, while I understand that some kind of purist idealistic level people may not like the idea of these credits, I think they have been very important tool in terms of both the creation of these new renewable energy facilities and sustaining the political will to keep them, keep them going with these strategies and these efforts.
John Farrell Yeah, I really appreciate the explanation. One of the things that we had seen as not equivalent to what I read about in terms of Burlington was in Illinois there was a lot of development with community choice programs where cities were being able to make energy purchases on behalf of customers, but they were doing it on very short term contracts and not as a utility that kind of runs all the services but just as an energy purchaser and they were doing a lot of credit buying from facilities that were already in existence and so they weren’t, as you pointed out, as the case of it with Burlington, resulting in new renewable energy capacity. And I think that’s where a lot of that criticism comes from. So I just wanted to follow that thread a little bit, but it’s really interesting what you said about being able to sustain that financial viability and the political will. I think you see that in other cities like Georgetown, Texas that have made this move since then that being able to tell people this is a very cost effective as well as an environmentally friendly or climate positive pursuit has really sustained a lot of support for that, which has been terrific.
Miro Weinberger Yeah. One anecdote on that John that I found interesting and sort of surprising. One of the institutions that took note when we got to the a hundred percent renewable threshold was our credit rating agency, Moody’s investors services. They actually issued an opinion soon after we got to that threshold noting that our a hundred percent renewable portfolio was a credit positive because they saw it as insulating Burlington electric and its customers from the volatility of the fossil fuels markets. And uh, you know, so that’s I think, uh, in so many ways the story of moving towards renewables is a surprising story. I think people expect it to be one of meeting government subsidies and handouts and costing more and again, and again, I think when you get into the details you find that this is actually a financially sound direction for utilities. And their customers.
John Farrell So Miro, while we’re on the subject of how successful this transition to 100% renewable electricity has been, why don’t we just quick pivot and talk about the city’s new commitment to be net zero by 2030 going beyond the electricity sector and for folks listening, could you maybe explain what it means to be net zero? I’ve heard like net zero carbon net zero energy, a number of different terms and why that’s an important goal for the city. Why is the city moving in that direction?
Miro Weinberger Great. Yes. We have set this goal of becoming a net zero energy city by 2030 we believe this to be perhaps the most ambitious local climate goal of any city, any region in, in the country. The way we have defined that is that we will be net zero across both the electricity sector where we are a powered by a hundred percent renewables, the thermal sector, the heating, cooling of our buildings and the ground transportation sectors. And we have had this as a strategic goal for a couple of years now, but in the last month we took an important step and releasing a roadmap that lays out a clear path to getting to this ambitious goal over the next 11 years, less than 11 years now and there’s a number of striking things about it. First of all, one thing to note is that the initiatives that we’ve been talking about so far have been important and have gotten us partway towards that goal between the renewable contracting, the renewable sourcing we’ve just been talking about as well as what we haven’t yet really discussed about Burlington’s prior history of really investing significantly in weatherization energy efficiency efforts. We are about 20% of the way towards this community wide goal and I think it’s important to, this isn’t just a goal for the municipality, this is saying of all the activity happening in the city of Burlington, we are going to try to be net zero by 2030 and we’re about 20% of the way there with the efforts that have already taken place. The path to getting to net zero across those three sectors by 2030 involves building on those two steps that you’ve taken so far. And essentially the strategies from here involve electrifying everything. So we will need to see a very high percentage of the city’s vehicle fleet transition over to electric vehicle and to a certain degree hybrids over the next a little more than a decade. We will need to see homeowners, business owners move their heating and cooling efforts from natural gas and oil, largely today to, cold climate heat pumps, and perhaps other technologies that use electricity as opposed to burning fossil fuels to heat and cool those properties.

And the final step, it’s a small part of the overall plan, but a critical part is to reduce the overall vehicle miles traveled, by Burlingtonians through better mass transit and active transportation efforts. And so there a variety of kind of land use policies and investments that are envisioned around that set of strategies. You know, the big picture and you know, Darren can get into some of the details. The thing that has been most exciting to me as we rolled this out and talking about it for the last month is that the analysis finds, again somewhat surprisingly, I think that we can get most of the way towards this vision through the use of commercial technologies that are available today and that are in many situations, many applications, cost efficient today, cost-effective today, and there is every reason to think that these technologies are going to become more cost effective. The course of this, this journey of, of this plan and to me that’s a very optimistic story and not one you often hear in the somewhat apocalyptic discussions that we have about the climate emergency and where we’re headed. 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 and actually make Burlington a more economically thriving place than it is today. And I think that’s an exciting vision.

John Farrell We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll continue our Voices of 100 interview with a discussion of cold climate heat pumps and other technology needed to make the net zero leap, how Burlington’s plan helps low income residents, and the advice that Miro and Darren have for other cities pursuing 100% renewable energy.
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John Farrell Can we just take a quick dive in, and I don’t know if Darren, if you want to talk a little bit more about heat pumps. This is such an important piece. We have all, not just Burlington and much of Vermont, I’m thinking about Minnesota where I’m from and a lot of the Northern part of the United States is burning a lot of fossil fuels for heat in the winter and heat pump technology is not new. It’s basically you’re taking an air conditioner and running in reverse. So instead of making cold air from warm air outside that you’re making warm air inside when it’s cold outside. Could you just explain a little bit about this notion of like a cold climate heat pump? Like can this work in really cold temperatures in places like Burlington and how will the city in utility help people install this technology, since it probably feels new to a lot of folks?
Darren Springer Yeah, well it does work. I have a cold climate heat pumps in my house. They provide heating in our bedrooms, very efficient heating and also very efficient cooling in the summertime and the new technology, the cold climate technology means that they can work even when outdoor temperatures are below zero. The technology is improving every year and getting even better. So basically you have the opportunity to have these ductless heat pumps systems that can provide space heating and they’re kind of modular. You can have them in every room of the home and try to heat with a hundred percent renewable electricity in Burlington, or you can try to find the, the zones of your home or building that our highest use and a install a heat pump to lower your fossil fuel use. And I think what’s exciting as well is that we’re seeing technologies in addition to heat pumps like geothermal ground source heating, which can work in larger commercial applications, variable refrigerant technology heat pumps that can work for larger commercial operations, and also kind of an emerging technology with these water-based heat pumps that can actually connect to an existing boiler and baseboard system and provide, uh, you know, heat pumps, technology that’s sort of seamless, uh, with some of the existing homes and buildings that we have in Burlington. So we as a part of the roadmap set of announcements and for folks who are listening to want to read the roadmap, it’s available at burlingtonelectric.com we announced with the mayor a number of new initiatives and incentives, one of which is that we’re offering up to $2,250 or customers to install cold climate heat pumps. And that number includes an enhanced incentive that we have for our low and moderate income customers. We have a number of installers that are working in the area that are providing this technology. And um, you know, increasingly, uh, we’re seeing applications for it in Burlington and around the state of Vermont. So we’re providing incentives and technical resources for our customers available on our website and through our energy services team and we foresee additional adoption going forward.
John Farrell I’m glad you already mentioned that incentive and the focus on low and moderate income customers, cause that was my next question. I’m just curious in all of this parts of this transition and the roadmap mural, you mentioned you’re doing heating, you’re doing, uh, you’ve already done a lot of energy efficiency, you’re doing transportation. How is the city going to make sure that low income folks aren’t left behind? Maybe they rent rather than own their home or maybe they don’t have the money up front to invest in energy improvements. Are there specific ways the city is addressing equity in this net zero goal beyond an upfront incentive?
Miro Weinberger Yeah, there’s quite a number of steps that we’re taking. Equity is very much on our minds as we’ve been proceeding down this path. Just last night at the city council, our council took an important step forward and endorsed one of the strategies that we released as part of the roadmap rollout that would require all rental properties in Burlington to be properly weatherized over the next, we haven’t set the timeline exactly yet, but it’s probably going to be over the next four, four or five years or so. Um, right now we have a situation where, and at least that we, we estimated about 40% of the rental properties. We have just a really deficient insulation weatherstripping and, and the tenants pay the bills and they pay very high utility bills, heating bills. As a result, we’re gonna make rental property owners bring their properties up to proper standard in a short period of time and those, those bills will fall dramatically. 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 latest model Teslas. We actually as part of the roadmap have a new incentive that patrons are starting to take advantage of that allows used electric vehicles and hybrids to qualify for these incentives that the Burlington electric department is offering, we think that’s going to significantly expand the number of households that can access electric vehicles. We have other efforts like that, uh, in the heat pump side. But I mean big picture. I think what we also need to remember in this is that we, we are doing this, we are pushing so hard to move in this direction because we have a climate emergency and the households that are going to be disproportionately impacted by that climate emergency as it manifests itself in the years ahead are low and moderate income households. Wealthy households, well off households are always going to be able to essentially buy their way out of the worst impacts of, of any disaster. And that that is the basis for our work is a fundamentally, this is aimed at ensuring that we avoid these terrible changes to our planet that are coming, that are gonna hit low and moderate income households first.
John Farrell So knowing what you’ve already been through in terms of the transition to a hundred percent renewables and then laying out this roadmap, what advice would either of you have for the other a hundred plus cities that have already made this a hundred percent renewable electricity commitment or major climate goals, commitments, and can they do it without a city owned utility? And Miro if you want to go first to, but Darren, I’m interested in hearing your advice as well for other cities.
Miro Weinberger So you know, again going back to me the Burlington story in terms of getting to the a hundred percent renewable, I really continue to see two essential ingredients of it. The first and largest, most significant ingredient is political will and making that decision as a community that you want to achieve this kind of change. Once a community has committed to that, I think this is possible anywhere. Is it easier? Again, I think we started the conversation by saying I think that the nature of publicly owned utilities, Darren is sitting right here at the table with me. He is a mayoral appointee. It is easier for a community that has that kind of structure, I think to move forward with these kind of societal goals. But it is by no means impossible for private utilities to achieve the same results of course. And there certainly are many ways in which those utilities can be influenced and can be urged and mandated into pursuing the same type of outcomes.

We have a great example of that here in Vermont. The largest electric utility in the state is not the Burlington electric department. It’s something called Green Mountain Power. They are an investor-owned utility and they have perhaps been even more aggressive than a BE has been over a longer period of time at embracing innovation and taking provocative steps to move towards climate. So it’s certainly possible in different structures. I think people just have to kind of do the political analysis. They have to map it out, they have to figure out where the pressure points are, what the levers are to bring about change with their utility and they can get there in any system.

John Farrell Darren, advice that you might have?
Darren Springer Yeah, I think, um, one of the interesting things to me about this net zero roadmap effort is having such a big public release. I’ve had anecdotal examples when I go to the coffee shop, when I’m talking to my neighbors, people who have taken in what this goal is and have embraced it and are thinking about different things in their own life. Should we get heat pumps? Should we, uh, get an EV? Should I take the bus more? Should I look at getting an electric bike, for example? I’ve heard all those conversations. So I think for communities just setting the goal and getting it out there that that’s a shared goal, as the mayor talks about with political will, is a really powerful tool. I think on the utility side, I agree completely that there are opportunities for innovation with investor owned utilities as well as public power as well as cooperatives. Green mountain power is a great example. In Vermont, we’ve got great utilities doing work. I think one of the challenges that needs to be looked at is utility regulation. We in Vermont have a creative regulatory structure that allows our utilities to make investments in rebates and incentives and programs that help reduce fossil fuel use in the heating and transportation sectors. I think as a nation we want our utilities to compete because we have a cleaner source of energy generally speaking than petroleum or you know, other fossil fuels. We want our utilities to compete for market share with EVs and with cold climate heat pumps and we want regulatory structures that are going to properly incentivize that competition. 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. So I think we need utility regulatory structures around the country that match the ambition that we have to decarbonize through electric technologies.
John Farrell That’s great. I really liked that calling out of the regulatory structure since there are so many States like Vermont that have that in place and the rules often do preclude electric utilities from doing innovative things. So I really appreciate a mention of that. I just wanted to wrap up by asking each of you to share something maybe you’ve read or heard about that inspires you to pursue these ambitious goals that Burlington has. And maybe Darren, if you want to go first.
Darren Springer Sure. Uh, you know, I’ve been with Burlington electric for about three years now and I remember when I interviewed back in 2016, uh, initially asking whether this net zero energy goal was, was community-wide or just based on the city’s operations and, and I was told it was community-wide and whether it was something that we were moving towards a in a serious way and I was told that we were, and that was just incredibly exciting to me because I had not heard of another community based goal that was that ambitious. And I think that, um, when we look at everything that’s going on around the country, around the world, on climate, the things that excite me are the opportunities that we have to move forward on this. I am a big reader of all things related to EVs and electric transportation. And, uh, one of the things that frankly was quite exciting to me is reading in motor trend of all places, a review of a couple of different electric vehicles and having the author of motor trend make note of the ITCC report calling for a 1.5 degree limit, uh, Celsius on emission globally and how it’s not okay just to be content with purchasing a vehicle as normal. We need to be thinking about EVs and, and buying EVs and seeing something like that in a magazine that I don’t normally associate with climate activism gives me hope that as we move as a community, as other communities are moving around the country, that we have a chance to really make some of these early adopter technologies much more mainstream and have an impact, you know, far beyond the borders of Burlington. So I’m grateful every day the mayor’s given me the opportunity to do this interesting work at Burlington Electric.
John Farrell and Mayor Miro, what, what inspires you in this work?
Miro Weinberger Well, John, I’m gonna share with you, um, a podcast that has a big impact on my thinking about how we approach the climate emergency. It’s a planet money podcast from about five years ago. They did an update last summer. It’s called the one page plan to fix global warming. It’s about the importance of carbon pollution pricing, really summarizes the work of William Nordhaus who won the Nobel prize last year for his, uh, his work on, on carbon pollution pricing. And you know, what it really says is that the way to get serious about this climate emergency is to properly price the impacts of burning fossil fuels. And until we do that, uh, I think we’re going to be fighting this emergency with one hand tied behind our back. You see that in the net zero energy city re analysis where while what I said is true, that many of these applications are cost effective today, they become much more so when finally you put in place something that properly captures the externalities that prices, that the costs of burning fossil fuels. And you know, when we do that, I believe we will solve this issue as we have on so many environmental issues in the past. You know, our, our air is cleaner today than it once was the, uh, our water is cleaner. We have largely tamed the problem of acid rain that used to really plague, this part of the country. We, we just need to put the right incentives and rules in place to do it. And uh, I think that 20 minute podcast captures, uh, the potential of doing that better than anything else I’ve heard.
John Farrell Well, Mayor Miro and Darren Springer from the Burlington Electric Department, thank you so much for sharing the story of how Burlington has achieved this monumental goal of 100% renewable electricity and how you haven’t given up on solving the rest of the problem with your net zero roadmap. We’re excited to share this with our audience.
Miro Weinberger Thanks so much for the chance to talk with you John. Thanks for doing this and putting the word out. I do think cities have great potential to play a leading role in this issue, particularly in this country, in this time when the federal government is taking us in absolutely the wrong direction and a, I think your podcast is, is helping spread that, that awareness.
Darren Springer Thanks very much John. Great to be with you.
John Farrell Thank you so much for listening to this episode of our Voices of 100% podcast series with Burlington, Vermont leaders Mayor Miro Weinberger and electric department General Manager Darren Springer. Check out the show page for links to Burlington’s net zero roadmap and other resources mentioned in the conversation. To learn about other cities pursuing 100% renewable energy, check out our 12 additional Voices of 100% interviews including leaders in Madison, Wisconsin, and Cleveland, Ohio, or even Abita Springs, Louisiana. Also on the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find the entire list of 100% cities on our community power map and click through an interactive community power toolkit for stories on how cities have advanced toward their goals. Tune back into local energy rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


One Goal Down

Burlington was the first U.S. 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.


See ILSR’s resources on Green Mountain Power’s business model, which include charts, a timeline, and a podcast.


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


Episode Notes

For more background on the issues discussed, check out:

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 100% 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.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured Photo Credit:  Scott Teresi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ben & Jerry’s photo credit: Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

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Maria McCoy
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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a research associate with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.

Maria McCoy
Follow Maria McCoy:
Maria McCoy is a research associate with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.