Fri, Jul 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Can cities fill the gap left by the US government on renewables?

Burlington, the first US city to run entirely on clean power, is inspiring other cities to make progress on climate change

By Oliver Milman  /  The Guardian, Burlington, VERMONT

Illustration: Mountain people

Burlington in the US state of Vermont has already given the world Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and provided the political launchpad for US Senator Bernie Sanders. Now the city’s successful switch to 100 percent renewable electricity is spurring US mayors to fill the gaping void on climate change action left by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

Burlington did not make a fuss when it switched on a new hydropower plant in late 2014 and became the first US city to run entirely on clean power.

“We didn’t have parades. I don’t know why in retrospect we didn’t make more of it,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said.

The achievement has since been thrown into sharp relief by the election of Trump, who has attempted to squash any sort of national response to climate change. The Paris climate agreement has been disavowed, policies to lower emissions from coal plants and vehicles have been wound back, adaption to the rising seas has been binned.

Amid this national crisis, dozens of US cities, states and businesses have strained to ameliorate the president’s agenda. More than 60 cities have now pledged to shift their electricity generation from fossil fuels to cleaner sources, such as solar, wind and hydro.

Burlington, a progressive bastion of 42,000 people an hour’s drive to the Canadian border, represents the vanguard.

“The job of every elected official in this country changed the day Donald Trump was elected,” said Weinberger, a liberal Democrat who has held the office since 2012.

Weinberger drives an electric car — a Nissan Leaf — but is fresh from a bike ride when we met.

“It’s not acceptable that America has completely retreated from the climate change conversation,” he said. “I think leaders realized that we are going to have to make progress on this even when the federal government has checked out.”

Burlington keeps the lights on thanks to the McNeil Generating Station, a hulking woodchip processor and furnace; a hydro plant situated next to an old wool factory that has its turbines spun by the Winooski River; a small array of wind turbines perched on nearby Georgia Mountain; and a bank of solar panels at Burlington International Airport.

The city managed the transition to fossil fuel-free electricity within just a decade, but the roots of its transformation go back further. A coal plant that now lies derelict was shuttered in 1986 amid local concerns over pollution and its reputation as an eyesore on the shoreline of Lake Champlain.

The McNeil plant was opened two years before — a plaque marking the occasion bears the name of one Bernard Sanders, the mayor at the time. It has since carried much of the burden, supplying about half of Burlington’s electricity needs by burning about 400,000 tonnes of waste wood a year that is purchased from businesses in the region.

Burlingtonians also bring their own unwanted crates, pallets and tree branches to the plant, where they are diced, stored in huge piles of woodchips, placed on conveyor belts and fed into a Hades-like furnace that reaches about 2,000oC.

The resulting steam turns a huge turbine that generates the electricity.

“We have to shift the woodchip piles around so they don’t get overheated and self combust,” said Dave MacDonnell, power generation manager of the plant.

“There was a small fire on one of the piles when we first opened. That was a PR nightmare,” he said.

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