Alternate energy sources totally
power Vermont’s biggest city to
power Vermont’s biggest city to
When Jon Clark gazes out his office window in early spring, he sees an intimate view of the Winooski River. Two inches of shatter-poof polycarbonate and steel bars protect Clark’s office from storm flooding—and the city of Burlington, Vermont, from power outages.
With a bodybuilder’s physique and a long gray beard, Clark’s aesthetic might seem more motorcycle gang leader than hydroelectric facility operator. But make no mistake: He keeps the Winooski One Hydro Plant running like a well-oiled machine. Even when he’s not on the grounds, the Burlington Electric power production technician can singlehandedly keep residents with power, even operating the facility remotely. When asked how he likes controlling operations from home, he shrugged a yes and laughed, “But my girlfriend hates it.”
Thirty-five percent of Burlington’s electricity needs comes from hydro-electric generation; 10 percent from the massive turbines at the bottom of the Winooski dam. The purchase of the Winooski facility in 2014 completed an energy portfolio that made Vermont’s most populous city the first city in the United States to source 100 percent of its power from renewable generation. This historical energy milestone grew out of an unwavering environmental ethic and commitment to future generations that permeates most aspects of life in Vermont.
Thirty-five percent of Burlington’s electricity needs comes from hydro-electric generation.
Communications Director Holly Brough has spent 24 years at Shelburne Farms, a National Historic Landmark located seven miles south of Burlington and dedicated to educating visitors about sustainability. Brough said Vermonters are receptive to environmentalism because the stakes are so visible. Burlington is scenically positioned between lush green mountains and the state’s jewel, Lake Champlain.
In 1984,the town’s biomass production moved inland to the McNeil Generating Station, which today accounts for 44 percent of Burlington’s energy.
Many of the 42,000 Burlingtonians spend their free time hiking, biking and rollerblading along this iconic lake. In winter, even the vegans ice fish, catching and releasing firm perch back into the water. Dirt-crusted Audi allroad® and Q5 vehicles around town hint at Vermonters’ affinity for the natural playground. “There’s this inherent desire to protect it,” Brough said of the landscape. This passion for sustainability propels the city of Burlington to find innovative ways to keep their surroundings beautiful.
In the 1970s, a coal plant on the shores of Lake Champlain served as Burlington’s primary electricity source. Sooty air left the laundry on the clotheslines dirty before it could be worn, and soot coated residential windows.
With a growing load on the utility, the city was ready for a change: to repurpose the coal plant to generate renewable biomass. In 1984, the town’s biomass production moved inland to the McNeil Generating Station, which today accounts for 44 percent of Burlington’s energy. Multiple times a week, a train stops alongside the plant and unloads tons of fuel (sustainably and locally harvested scrap wood chips) to generate electricity.
The community contributes, too, lining up to drop anything from yard waste to Christmas trees at the plant’s free collection site. The “clean wood” must be free of nails, paint, and any treatment, because the lighter wood ash, a by-product of biomass fuel, is used as a conditioner for organic soil. The heavier bottom ash is used to build roads.
Beyond the obvious environmental advantages, Burlington was able to realize social benefits of its move to 100 percent renewable energy. By doing away with sooty coal, the city made power plants more accessible, and recreating at energy generation sites has become one of the city’s underrated charms. Winooski One has a waterfall that cascades into salmon pools on a calm section of the Winooski River. During the spring, the pool below the dam is open for fishing. Even on a drizzly May weekday, a young couple walked out onto the mini cliffs at Winooski One, soaking up its unique power-plant beauty.
The Middle East Meets New England
The name Honey Road is inspired by the story of Turkish women who brought bee keeping back to their village to save the local economy after the men had left to work elsewhere. Honey Road is predominately run by women—behind the bar, on the floor, and in the kitchen. “We set out to hire people who were awesome, and they just happened to be women,” said Head Chef and co-owner Cara Chigazola-Tobin.
Honey Road is a Mediterranean Mezze restaurant, with ingredients that come almost exclusively from Vermont. All the protein is seasonal and comes from Vermont, and Chigazola-Tobin estimates that 90 percent of the produce does. The Middle Eastern ingredients—such as pomegranate molasses, zaatar, and orange blossom water—come from a company out of the Middle East that helps women support their families. Dishes like the Baby Carrots, Whipped Date Butter, Harissa, Pecan Dukkah encapsulate the alchemy of hyper-local Vermont produce and carefully curated exotic flavors.
100 to Net Zero
The largest solar array that the city owns sits on the rooftop of Burlington International Airport and next to a rain garden and picnic space. Solar accounts for a small (2 percent) but essential component of Burlington’s portfolio and is considered a peaking resource, because generation is most prolific during the city’s greatest energy draw in the summer months. The solar array offers a view of the remaining part of Burlington’s renewable energy puzzle: massive wind turbines tucked into Georgia Mountain. Wind power from various sites, including Georgia Mountain Community Wind, make up 19 percent of the portfolio.
Dirt-crusted Audi allroad® and Q5 vehicles around town hint at Vermonters’ affinity for the natural playground.
For Neale Lunderville, former general manager of Burlington Electric Department, one of the most notable parts of its 100 percent renewable story is that the city-owned utility hasn’t increased rates in 10 years. Lunderville said the conventional wisdom on renewables is that the more renewables a city gets, the more expensive electricity is. “What we’ve shown in Burlington is that they don’t have to,” he said. Lunderville credits this to creative power-supply deals and fiscal discipline in the organization.
If he was an energy plant, Lunderville would always be operating at full capacity. “We’re always thinking of doing the next thing to lead the charge,” he said. During his tenure, he ran a lean team that matched his energy and passion, and today BED leads the charge on the city’s next goal: Net Zero across thermal (heating and hot water) and transportation. “ ‘Net zero’ to us means that we are either producing or sourcing enough renewable energy to cover all of our energy needs in those areas,” he said.
Thanks to a hefty investment from a public-private partnership, an ambitious thermal project, District Energy, is gaining momentum after decades of planning. The strategy includes capturing waste heat generated at McNeil to heat the local hospital, university, and buildings in the downtown area via a thermal loop around the city.
The second part of the Net Zero equation is ground transportation. “Anything you can electrify and drive it or ride it or ride on it, we want to provide an incentive to get people to use it,” Lunderville said. Making Burlington a great place to own an electric vehicle, such as the Audi e-tron coming out this fall, BED is lowering the EV charging rate from 14 cents a kilowatt hour to approximately 8 cents. The electric department offers customers income-based EV rebates and partners with local credit unions to get that money to buyers up-front.
BED customer and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger recently made the switch to electric and took advantage of the EV rebate. His family of four now owns just one EV plus bicycles to cover local trips. The city, which owns BED, works in close partnership on Net Zero transportation goals. “We think that’s quite exciting, especially if you can marry up electrification of vehicles with those vehicles being charged by our 100 percent renewable energy stream of electricity,” Weinberger said.
ArtsRiot’s co-founders, PJ McHenry and Felix Wai, are on a mission to destroy apathy. The expression of this mission, McHenry said, is in the calendar of events at their mechanic’s warehouse-turned-music venue and restaurant. On a given week, even a given day, happenings can range from mayoral debates to drag shows. In the second week in May, the schedule included a university student affairs luncheon, a Moth live storytelling show, a fundraiser that generated $50,000 for an organization that makes adaptive ski equipment available for people with spinal injuries, and a performance by Vermont’s top country singer. Chef George Lambertson is destroying apathy of the palate with fleeting menu items like his Spicy Korean Pork Pad Thai with calamari, kimchi, duck egg, basil, bean sprouts and peanuts.
McHenry said something he hears often is that ArtsRiot isn’t a “normal restaurant” or a “normal music venue.” He credits the unique programming. “It’s because we have a social mission and there aren’t kids’ poetry recitals at the other music venues in town,” he said. “There aren’t Eritrean women who are new American refugees cooking pop-up dinners at other restaurants in town.”
Making Burlington more bike-friendly has been a notable part of Weinberger’s tenure. The city has incorporated more protected bike lanes, and new bike shares are strategically placed around town. Replacing car lanes with bike lanes has not been without controversy, but Weinberger said he has seen growing acceptance. Also increasing in acceptance in the hilly city are E-bikes, which Lunderville insists are “not hype.” “You go from feeling like a complete slug on a bike—and I love to bike—to feeling like you’re on the Tour [de France] without the doping... right up the hill and it’s no problem,” he said. Sweat-fearing commuters in Burlington no longer have an excuse not to bike to work, and of course, BED offers an E-bike rebate to kickstart the trend.
Many of the 42,000 Burlingtonians spend their free time hiking, biking and rollerblading along this iconic lake.
Burlington is covered with miles of bike paths along Lake Champlain, and 14-miles-per-hour electric power makes it much more feasible to cover all of them. A trip heading north from the downtown marina (the site of Burlington’s retired coal plant) weaves through tree-lined beaches and neighborhoods to North Beach. In the first sunny days of spring, this spot is packed with college students partying in the sun or pouring over their giant textbooks. Eventually the route meets the Island Line Trail—or, as locals call it, the causeway. This retired railroad has been upcycled into a stunning path that cuts across the middle of Lake Champlain.
Gems like the causeway prompt Burlington Electric and Vermonters of all walks of life to protect their resources. Just a year after Burlington achieved its historic renewable energy goal, the first class to spend all of its elementary-school years at the city’s public Sustainability Academy graduated. One graduating fifth-grader shared his definition of sustainability in a video. He said sustainability is “to be able to do something that you like—once more, or many more times.”