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.
Illustration: Mountain people
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.
The path to 100 percent renewable energy was smoothed by an engaged, progressive populace concerned about diminishing snow on nearby ski runs and heatwaves triggering algal blooms on Lake Champlain.
Crucially, the city owns the local utility — the Burlington Electric Department, whose logo looks like it belongs on a 1950s-themed diner — and has managed to keep rates steady over the past decade for bill-payers.
“Bernie started getting more people involved and out of the woodwork came ideas,” said Will Raap, who moved to Burlington from California in the 1980s and set up a not-for-profit organization that facilitates local food growing.
“The city council began to shift to reflect a progressive point of view and they brought along the private sector. Now Burlington is the most sustainable city around and the national government has got its head up its butt. Cities are where it is happening,” Raap said.
Other, larger cities are also looking to push ahead.
Last year, Atlanta became the largest city in the south to pledge 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. San Francisco hopes to achieve this feat five years before that. The skiing playground of Aspen, Colorado, has already got there.
Some Republican-led cities, such as San Diego, California, have also thrown their weight behind the goal. Carmel, Indiana, has installed 116 roundabouts, a rarity in the US, in recent years to improve safety and also cut emissions from cars idling at traffic light intersections.
“We had to have a lot of public education at the start — some people complained,” said Carmel Mayor James Brainard, a Republican who has been mayor since 1996. “But now, people are proud and we have fights over where we are going to have the next one. Climate is a big part of that.”
Cities can make major progress in cutting emissions, said Stanford University academic Mark Jacobson, who has devised a roadmap for US cities to go 100 percent renewable.
“The only obstacle really is knowledge,” he said.
However, even if the political will and resources are there, the contours of ambition are still influenced by states and the federal government.
Recent research suggests the US is struggling to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the level it promised in the Paris agreement, at precisely a time when it and other countries would have to accelerate cuts to avoid punishing sea level rises, storms, heatwaves and societal unrest.
Cities can only do so much to quicken the pace.
“When you can only set policy within a 15m2 [39km2] area, it’s much harder to move the needle,” Weinberger said.
“It takes leadership and political will in thousands of jurisdictions when the federal government isn’t doing its job. It can be frustrating, but I think it’s still worth doing. It’s a lot better than doing nothing,” he added.
In Burlington, the next stage of the masterplan to become fully carbon-free is to electrify its transport, a trickier proposition as the city does not fully control this area.
The regional transport authority is to run four electric buses by the end of the year, while the city is offering rebates of up to US$1,800 for anyone wishing to buy an electric car. So far, 44 residents have done so.
“The irony is for many years we were inviting people to leave the grid because it wasn’t clean,” Burlington sustainability coordinator Jennifer Green said. “Now that it’s clean we want people back.”
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