What does the world look like if most cities are energy independent and their power sources renewable?
Does it look like wind turbines or solar panels popping up all over the place? Or is it more subtle?
The answer is: it looks like a mix of our hopes and fears, only not as glaring as the nay-sayers might predict on either side.
Things actually may be much brighter than anyone expects! Especially once you know that about half the world’s population lives in cities and two-thirds of the world’s energy is consumed in cities, accounting for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 1
And things are looking up, literally and figuratively! Here’s a few recent headlines:
- 2014 A “Massive Year” for Wind and Solar Power in Scotland – New Data Published
- Zschadrass Germany – Self-sufficient 100% Renewable Village
- 100% Renewable Rural Communities in Bangladesh
- Denmark Sets World Record – 39.1% of its power in 2014 from wind!
I could have gone on and on with these signs of progress but the bottom line is this: the times they are a-changin’!
The First Fossil Fuel Free City
That said, it was hard to understand what 100% renewable energy sources actually looks like.
Does that mean that only windy or sunny cities have a shot at the prize?
Not at all! In fact, the story that inspired this article comes from the cold, often cloudy green mountains of the U.S.: Burlington, Vermont was just named the first city in America to be powered by 100% renewable energy!
With a population of around 42,000 people, there are some detractors for this achievement, but the potential here is obviously able to be scaled and has the potential to be replicated, and that’s were the good news surges through: now we know it can be done!
So today we take a closer look at what energy independence looks like on the ground, in everyday life, in a typical small, modern city.
Burlington Vermont is in our back yard, so we know it well! In fact, you may not realize that the global website you are reading right now comes from about 40 miles up the road, in Fairfield Vermont.
Fairfield has all the best in small community: agriculture, innovators, wise leaders, and notably, the Ben and Jerry’s Cows graze in our meadows!
And now it has EverWideningCircles.com, this website created to remind people that the world is still an amazing place, despite what the negative 24-hour news cycle would have us believe. In one year, we have regular subscribers and app users from 190+ countries, because we publish one article each day, like this, to inspire insight and hope!
So let’s get to it!
Firstly, in our research for this piece we learned that the best overall strategy for independence includes diversity of power sources: Burlington’s angle is to derive 100% of its electricity from 4 renewable energy sources: hydroelectric power (the main staple), biomass power (mostly burning wood chip refuse), wind power, and solar power.
Check out PBS’ News Hour program How did Burlington achieve 100 percent renewable energy to listen to local energy gurus and pundits weigh in on the reality of this incredible goal:
Nice huh!? Some would say it took that independent “Yankee Spirit” to plow ahead on this against the naysayers. And maybe our roots as Yanks is part of the equation.
Getting to Know the Small, Unique City of Burlington, Vermont
So, why you might ask, was a city in Vermont so well positioned to be the first? Some of this may be from a long cultural heritage of breaking from the pack.
Did you know the first colonial victory the Revolutionary War was won in Vermont and Vermont was the first state to join the original 13 colonies in the union. Vermont was the first state to include a clause in their state’s constitution to outlaw slavery, and the first to create parallel rights (called “Civil Union”) for gay couples.
Yep, whether we’re talking Eco-friendly public policies or famous Senators who change parties upsetting the balance of Congress, The Yanks are Coming when it comes to Vermont’s impulses to push forward while guarding dearly the most important elements of their past.
So why would the first city to go this way be in the cold northeast? To answer that, I’m reminded of one of my greatest high school teachers: Mr. Trombley, at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans Vermont. With his trademark, ear-to-ear grin, he used to say:
“To the world, Americans are yankees. To Americans, northerners are yankees. To northerners, New Englanders are yankees. To New Englanders, Vermonters are yankees. And to Vermonters? A yankee is someone who eats Vermont cheddar cheese with their apple pie.”
If you’re on the move or want to save the audio from this monumental event on a mobile device or desktop computer, we’ve added an MP3 file of this video which you can listen to using the audio player embedded below, or to save it for later, click here to go to SoundCloud.com and download this track.
So Is Burlington, Vermont the First Fossil Fuel Free City, Really?
You may have noticed in the above video (at around the 5:08 mark) not everyone agrees that Burlington is as advanced as the Burlington Power’s Ken Nolan and the University of Vermont’s Taylor Ricketts, an environmental sciences professor. Sandra Levine, an environmental attorney in the Burlington, Vermont area, thinks the results are being skewed in the city’s favor.
“Burlington is making claims that they’re providing 100% renewable power to their customer. And that’s not really accurate,” Levine says. “[They’re] on the path. But, you’re not really there. And I really look to Burlington Electric to provide some stronger leadership to really show how what they are doing is adding to the overall renewable supply for the region. Because that’s where we need to be going.” 4
Essentially, Ms. Levine believes the city of Burlington and power company Burlington Electric is “taking some liberties with its accounting. 5 ” However much of Ms. Levine’s concerns over Burlington and Burlington Electric’s statistics stem from the fact that:
- One of their hydroelectric stations in Vermont is old and “not as green as modern technology.”
- Another hydroelectric component, one of the larger sections in fact, comes from Maine – it isn’t a local plant.
Burlington Electric’s Ken Nolan’s response is poignant, forward-thinking, and the type of rationale we need to make this a goal across the country (something UVM’s Taylor Pickett notes is completely possible and not just a “quirk of [Burlington’s] geography or weather” 6). In response to pundits of Burlington’s incredible victory over fossil fuels, Nolan had the following to say:
Some of our opponents … take a shortsighted view. They’d say they– they were purists about … the renewable energy should be brand new and it should be today. I want New England to be 100% renewable across New England. The way you get there is by giving the folks who are actually building the projects the money they need to build the projects.” 7
With this, Ever Widening Circles and this writer in particular couldn’t agree more! We have two giant, solar panels on the farm in Fairfield Vermont, at the EWC headquarters that track the sun and nearly zero out our power use when the days are longer in the summer and fall.
We waited until that technology developed to the current level and when we considered the government’s generous subsidies to promote the project, we could not find a reason to wait.
Now we suspect that if the EWC farm/homestead is investing in self-sufficiency, we may be on the leading edge of a movement. Dr. Chuck and Dr. Lynda (EWC founders) certainly fall into the category of “early adopters”, but what if they are part of a trend?
Curious about where to learn more?
To learn more about Burlington’s achievement of hitting zero fossil fuel use, jump over to the PBS NewsHour’s Running on renewable energy, Burlington, Vermont powers green movement forward, which has a full transcript to go along with the video/MP3 audio above.
There will be trade-offs
Remember that every driving force in human history has had its day and then faded. Replaced, often with fierce resistance, by something that brought us into better days.
People once complained violently that automobiles were a terrible alternative to horse and buggy. The same is true of almost every advancement in the last 2000 years.
Bottom-line: Though we may have to negotiate some thorny patches, and even if you are afraid of one alternative energy source or another, the winds of change are now blowing. Cities and individuals are moving in new directions and that will not reverse.
Even the objectionable renewable energy sources will be replaces by better options.
Remain calm. Humans have a long history of finding a way forward.
If you’re looking to get involved in using renewable energy in some capacity, take a look at the following links:
- Solar power – to find solar power providers near you or to scan through a directory of all solar power providers, check out FindSolar.com. FindSolar.com also houses current solar power installation rebate information, a calculator to give you an idea of your cost and savings over time, and even has state-by-state restriction and guideline info.
- Biomass energy – to learn about biomass energy and see how you can get involved (even on a small scale in your own fireplace!), check out UCSUSA.org‘s How Biomass Energy Works for a ton of solid information.
- Hydroelectric power – the best part about hydroelectric? You’re probably already getting a lot of your energy from it (think Hoover Dam)! To learn more about hydroelectric power and to see if you can sign up for a power company that uses this incredible source of energy, check out AltEnergy.org, a great website that also houses a ton of information on all the other various alternative, non-fossil fuel energies to be had.
- Wind power – though it’s less likely that you personally can setup a wind turbine, if you’re a business, school, or involved in agriculture the idea may be more feasible. Check out WholesaleSolar.com to see wholesale wind turbine prices, information and restrictions on purchases and setup, and so forth. (Please note: even if you’re in no way large enough an entity to have a wind turbine, there is some really solid information here!)
If you are curious about getting one positive article like this – on any subject under the sun – then scroll down our homepage to see the diversity of our daily pieces.
And contact us by email with any ideas, links or story suggestions you might have.
We are real people, easy to communicate with… Just spreading insight and ideas as they come along. Have a great day!
~ Dr. Lynda
Ever Widening Circles would like to thank PBS and narrator William Brangham for breaking this exciting story and for giving my home state of Vermont another thing in the “green world” for which to be proud! Also we’d like to thank Corey K. for sharing this story on Facebook and starting to spread the word!