Saturday, September 14, 2019

Sustainability Case Studies--Chapter 6. Sustainable Renewable Energy: The Case of Burlington, Vermont

Burlington, Vermont. Click for photo credit.
This is the sixth post in this blog series, Sustainability Case Studies, that is based on the book The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability:  Case Studies and Practical Solutions edited by Robert Brinkmann (yours truly) and Sandra Garren and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. Each post in the series will comment on the content of the chapter as well as some general take-aways or practical teaching or personal/organizational initiatives that could be gleaned from the chapter. Links to previous posts on the series (including the post that introduced the series) follow after the chapter review.

Today's post is on Chapter 6, Sustainable Renewable Energy:  The Case of Burlington, Vermont by my co-editor, Sandra Garren of Hofstra University.

The chapter begins with considerable background information on the history of energy independence initiatives in the United States and makes a clear link between the importance of energy independence and locally derived renewable energy. While the U.S. has many policies that promote dirty energy sources, most of the real efforts on renewable energy are done at the state and local levels. Indeed, as the article notes, 36 US cities have pledged to "...source 100 percent of electrical power from renewable energy, and five cities have already achieved this target (i.e. Aspen Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Greensburg, Kansas; Kodiak, Alaska; and Rock Port, Missouri (Sierra Club 2017))." Because Burlington, Vermont was the first city to achieve this goal, it is a logical place to study to understand how to do renewable energy at a big urban scale.

Garren provides interesting background on the city. It is largely known as a progressive place that was once led by the well-known Bernie Sanders, a current contender for the presidency. Sanders in 1984 closed the only coal power plant in Vermont. However, it was under the current Mayor, Miro Weinberger, that Burlington achieved complete energy independence. Mayor Weinberger also initiated a range of sustainability projects.

The chapter continues with a snapshot on Vermont's overall energy picture. Most of the energy consumption is in the transportation and residential sectors. Compared to other states, it uses a low percentage of energy in industrial sectors. Hydroelectricity provides 51% of the electrical sources while petroleum provides the majority of the energy for transportation and heating.

Downtown Burlington. Click for photo credit.
Burlington itself achieved 100% renewable electrical production through a variety of projects that date back to the 1980's. They include biomass, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and a variety of other initiatives. The local utility is publicly owned which facilitated moving forward with projects that were important to the community. A biomass plant is responsible for about 41% of the electricity used in Burlington. The sustainability initiatives developed by Burlington are part of the overall regional green movement throughout the state that engages community members, businesses, and a variety of other stakeholders.

As with all the chapters, the piece concludes with sections on lessons learned and  challenges and barriers. In this case, it is clear that political will (and leadership) and having a publicly owned utility were key to Burlington's success. Challenges remain, particularly in the transportation and home heating areas which utilize mainly petroleum products. In addition, the lack of clarity at the federal level is particularly frustrating. Renewable energy has become a political issue at the federal level and policies seem to be ever changing. This makes developing sound state and local policy difficult.

There is much more in the chapter that cannot be covered in this post. Suffice it to say that it provides a fascinating review of how one American city made a commitment to renewable energy and how it achieved the goal.
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Click here to for more information about the book
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Here are some discussion questions that can be used when using this chapter in a lesson on energy planning, renewable energy, or sustainability management within local governments.

1. Mayor Weinberger instituted a number of sustainability initiatives for Burlington. How can they be utilized to address the need to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels for transportation and home heating?
2. Why do you think Burlington was the first city in the US to achieve 100% of its electricity from renewables?
3. Most of Burlington's electricity (41%) comes from biomass. What is the source of the biomass? What are the environmental consequences of this energy use?
4. What would it take for your community to get 100% of its electricity from renewable sources?
5. How did the state of Vermont get to the point that it gets most of its electricity from renewable sources?
6. The electrical utility in Burlington is publicly owned. Why do you think this was important to meeting the goal of 100% renewable energy for the region?
7. How do you think the overall (electrical use and other uses) energy portfolio will change for Vermont in the coming decades?
8. Hydroelectricity is a major component of Vermont's (and Burlington's) energy portfolio. What are the environmental impacts of the use of this important renewable energy source?

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Previous posts in this series:

Chapter 5. Drinking Water Infrastructure Inequality and Environmental Injustice:  The Case of Flint Michigan

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