One hundred percent of the electricity powering Burlington — Vermont's largest city — will come from wind, water, biomass, and other sources of renewable energy, bringing the city to the forefront of a nationwide movement to make businesses and cities more environmentally-friendly.
Burlington's goal was reached when the city bought the 7.4-megawatt Winooski 1 hydroelectric project on the Winooski River earlier this month, the Associated Press reported. The purchase led the city to join the Washington Electric Co-operative, an energy system that already powers thousands of households across northern and central Vermont — an area that went 100 percent green earlier this year.
"We're now in a position where we're supplying Burlington residents with sources that are renewable," Ken Nolan, manager of power resources for Burlington Electric Department, said at a press conference earlier this month, in which he announced the deal. "The prices are not tied to fossil fuels — they're stable prices — and they provide us with the flexibility, from an environmental standpoint, to really react to any regulation or changes to environmental standards that come in the future."
Renewable energy advocates hailed Burlington's achievement as a "milestone" likely to galvanize the nationwide campaign.
"The momentum toward 100 percent renewable energy targets is already underway in the US," Diane Moss, the founding director of the Southern California-based Renewables 100 Policy Institute, told VICE News. "Frontrunners like these will likely encourage cities in a range of geographic locations to look at the added value of seeking energy independence with renewables for their communities."
"Today, 100 percent renewable is starting to become part of the conversation among governments, regulators, non-profits, researchers, and businesses," added Moss, whose institute tracks worldwide commitments and achievements on the issue. "However, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. The United States generates less than 13 percent of its electricity with renewable energy sources, and less than 6 percent, if one doesn't count large hydropower."
And the US, she added, is still far behind countries like Germany and Denmark.
Burlington's move is not only better for the environment — it's also cost-effective for the city's 42,000 residents and was the results of years of work by the state and Washington Electric to go renewable. The initiative is part of a state-wide effort to get 90 percent of Vermont to be powered by renewable sources by 2050.
"It shows that we're able to do it, and we're able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future," said Christopher Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, according to the AP.
"Burlington's achievement also demonstrates that the investment is good for local economics," Moss said. "When Burlington bought the local hydro plant that allowed it to claim its 100 percent renewable power status, Moody's raised Burlington's credit rating from positive to stable. Why? Because it viewed the city as safe from the volatility of traditional energy markets and short term procurement contracts."
But there's a caveat: renewable energy alone won't always be enough to power the city — for instance when wind is scarce and water levels low. In those cases, the city will buy energy from suppliers of traditionally generated energy. When renewable energy sources produce a surplus, however, the city will sell the extra to traditional suppliers, eventually selling more than it buys, officials said.
Perhaps most importantly to some customers, the city won't raise electricity prices, according to officials.
"A lot of times when you buy plants like this, you end up having to increase rates initially to drop them later," Nolan said, "And we were able to buy it without any impact and then lock in the benefits in the future."
Burlington is believed to be the largest community to have achieved the goal, but other towns and cities across the country are on their way.
In California, the city of Palo Alto is on track to achieve the same goal by 2017 and Lancaster, which has a population of about 160,000, expects to be able to meet 100 percent of its citizens' power demand with renewables in the next few years.
"Renewable energy is one of the most significant ways to reduce [Greenhouse Gas] emissions and provide a real choice for consumers at a reasonable price," Linda Giannelli Pratt, managing director of Green Cities California, told VICE News in an email. "The way this is happening in California, which has a regulated energy market, is either through Community Choice Aggregation or through a public utility, such as Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the LA Department of Water and Power, where the city makes that commitment and chooses to purchase all green energy."
Some technical challenges continue to slow down the push towards renewable energy across the country, but the biggest challenges, Moss said, "are social and political."
Local and city governments like Burlington can take the lead, she added, but "every part of society has a role to play in the transition to 100 percent renewable energy."
"The federal US government ideally should establish a comprehensive policy to transition the nation to 100 percent renewable energy independence, like it did to prepare to enter World War II or to win the Cold War," Moss said. "However, given the current partisan dysfunction in the United States Congress, we can realistically expect much of the leadership for the time being to continue to come from the local level and businesses."