Can A City Run On 100% Renewable Energy?
RYAN WOLFF: Actually, it's more like 1,600 tons of wood chips,
give or take.
What you're looking at is a train unloading fuel
for the McNeil Generating Station, a biomass power
plant in Burlington, Vermont.
McNeil can generate 50 megawatts of power
by burning 76 tons, or roughly three truckloads
of wood chips every hour.
That's a lot of wood chips.
And burning these wood chips provides
Burlington with about 43% of its electricity.
But aside from burning a lot of wood,
Burlington is also known as the first city in the US
to run on 100% renewable energy, a title they've
been proud of since 2014.
But how exactly do they do it?
Is it really possible for a city to be powered entirely
by renewable energy?
It seems like everyone wants to go green these days.
Green cars, green housing, small, green planet Earth
models that you can hold in your hands, and green energy.
And not surprisingly, what might be the most green city
in the United States is located right
in the Green Mountain state.
So we decided to head over to Burlington
to see what all the fuss was about.
What do you like about Burlington?
MIRO WEINBERGER: What do I like about Burlington?
RYAN WOLFF: Yeah.
You know, Burlington is just a wonderful city.
RYAN WOLFF: This is Miro Weinberger,
mayor of Burlington– a position held, at one point,
by this guy.
MIRO WEINBERGER: We have great food, we have great arts,
we have incredible access to the outdoors.
And at the same time, in a lot of ways,
we have that kind of familiarity of a small town.
Back in 2004, the city was sourcing only about 25%
of its overall generation from renewable sources.
Made the decision that they were going to do better than that.
They were going to try to get to 100%.
And in, what I think is a pretty fast period of time since then,
we've gone all the way from 25% to more than 100%
of our power sourced from renewable energy.
RYAN WOLFF: So can you kinda just
give us a general overview of where
the electricity in Burlington comes from?
RYAN WOLFF: This is Neale Lunderville,
general manager of Burlington electric department.
So we have the four main food groups for renewable power.
Biomass, which we get about 43% of our power from biomass.
About 33% of it is from hydroelectric power.
The third major group is wind.
We take power from Georgia Mountain
wind and Sheffield wind, both in Vermont.
That's about 23%.
And the last little bit, that little 1% is from solar.
And we have solar here in our building,
we have solar at the airport, plus we
have homes and businesses that have
solar inside of Burlington.
That amounts for a very small percent,
but if you take all those together– biomass, hydro,
wind, and solar– that comprises our portfolio.
RYAN WOLFF: Since we are in the neighborhood,
we decided to take a cruise and check out
where Burlington's power was actually coming from.
Where are we heading to first?
We are heading to the Winooski One Hydro Electric Facility.
RYAN WOLFF: All right.
You lead the way, sir.
Hi, my name is Ryan.
What's your name?
Nice to meet you.
I'm the director of generation here at the McNeil plant.
So– so what do you guys do at the McNeil plant?
In the McNeil plant, we basically–
we're taking wood chips, we're burning them in a boiler.
When the wood chips burn, the boiler makes steam.
Steam goes down to a turbine.
The turbine spins.
It's connected to a generator.
The generator makes electricity, it goes out on the line.
And this plant burns roughly around 75 ton of wood an hour
to produce 50 megawatts of power.
Throughout the year, we'll burn roughly around 400,000 ton
RYAN WOLFF: 400,000 tons of wood.
That's roughly equivalent to 600,000 trees a year.
So let's talk a little bit about biomass, because it seems
to me like you're still– you're burning wood chips,
And you're getting power from that.
I mean, that sounds pretty similar to like
burning coal or any other sort of fossil fuel.
Like, how is that renewable?
How is that different from burning fossil fuel?
It is quite a bit.
These are sustainably harvested wood chips.
So the foresters will go in.
They're going to selectively harvest trees to allow
for bird and bat habitats.
We're going to be taking the tops
of trees and limbs of trees.
Grinding those into wood chips.
And you know, we're transporting them extremely efficiently
and we're actually now– we're going
back and re-harvesting areas that were harvested 25,
30 years ago when McNeil first came online,
meaning that we are regrowing our fuel source.
It is renewable.
And we're not– we're not clear cutting it and building
a shopping mall.
You know, we're going back and replanning it,
or let the forest do its replanning.
And we're doing it in such a way that we
will have those resources for generations to come.
But burning though, that's still–
would you consider that green energy?
It's still– I mean, you're still emitting carbon
into the atmosphere.
There are a lot of schools of thought on this.
We would say that– and this is a well known science–
that new trees are going to be absorbing
more carbon than older trees.
We are cutting in [INAUDIBLE] forest to regenerate.
We are also putting in forests that
are soaking up more of the carbon that's
in the atmosphere.
So while we're still burning the trees,
we're doing it in the most environmentally sensitive kind
The technology right now doesn't allow
us to run the grid on just solar power, or just wind power,
or just hydro.
We need something more.
Biomass power can be 24/7 power, which is important.
And so we would say the biomass is a lot better
than burning oil, or coal, or even natural gas.
RYAN WOLFF: So compared to oil and coal,
trees do seem to be a lot more renewable.
And if the forest is growing back at the same rate
as it's being burned, then in theory,
biomass should be carbon neutral.
But what about the plant's other emissions?
In addition to CO2, when you burn wood,
you release other harmful things into the atmosphere,
like nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.
So that's the smokestack behind me.
And I don't know if you can tell or not,
but it doesn't really look like there's
anything coming out the top.
But I'm sure there is because the plant's running.
So we saw the incinerator.
You're burning wood chips right now.
But looking at this smokestack, it
doesn't look like there's any smoke coming out of it.
There is no smoke coming out of it.
We have a series of pollution control devices
here to limit what goes up the stack.
And the main job with the operator
is to monitor that continuously when the plant's online.
We capture all the ash and we have a limit on opacities.
Opacities like the particulate matter.
We have an electrostatic precipitator
that does collect all the ash.
RYAN WOLFF: Cool.
The ash generated by the boiler is
saved and later used as a soil conditioner or a base
for building roads.
McNeil's particulate nitrogen oxide emissions
are well under state and federal limits.
So as a generator that gets its power from burning stuff,
it's a relatively clean one.
But outside of the pollution controls and state and federal
limits, it was hard to deny that these power plants just
felt nice and clean.
The hydro plant was a park, there
was a guy walking a dog, a turtle,
a fish elevator– no joke.
And the biomass plant even smelled good,
like fresh cut cedar.
It wasn't what I usually thought of
when I imagined what a power plant was like.
I actually used to live down the street from a coal plant
and this was different.
These were power plants you didn't
have to hide on the outskirts of town.
But even though the power plants were clean and carbon neutral,
there had been some other criticisms of Burlington's 100%
One other thing that I've heard mentioned
is that, occasionally, you have to buy extra energy
from other sources.
Can you talk a little bit about that?
So we buy power over the course of the year.
There are going to be points in our peak periods
where we may not have enough power to cover our needs.
So we would go back to market to buy that power.
RYAN WOLFF: When Burlington electric goes back to market,
the power they buy is a residual mix
of power from the grid, which could technically
come from anywhere, including nuclear, natural gas, or even
NEALE LUNDERVILLE: There are also points,
usually in the winter, where we're long on power, meaning
that we have power to sell.
So we're selling back into the market.
But over the course of the whole year,
we've got enough power contracts to cover all of our power needs
with renewable sources.
RYAN WOLFF: And in the future, when more renewable sources
come online, they won't have to rely as much on market power.
In order to keep their power affordable,
Burlington electric will also sell off
a lot of the power they produce in the form of renewable energy
NEALE LUNDERVILLE: We sell class one renewable energy credits,
which are the highest kind of renewable energy credit.
And then we take what we make from the sale
and put it back into keeping our rates low.
After we sell the class one RECs,
we go out and buy class two RECs,
an amount equal that we sell.
So it's a way to use the market to keep
our renewability in place, while at the same time
allowing our customers to benefit
from our aggressive stance on renewable power.
But there's more to Burlington's plan
than just buying renewable energy.
The key to really staying renewable
is to cut down on the amount of power that you use.
The truism in energy is the cheapest kilowatt hour
is the one that you don't use.
In fact, we use less electricity today,
as a city, than we did in 1989.
More than 25 years ago.
With our efficiency program, we are
working directly with our customers–
both our large customers and our residential customers–
to provide them with a package of incentives
to help them move over to more efficient products.
So for our residential customers,
it might be as simple as changing out their light bulbs
to LED light bulbs.
But our large customers, we're working with them
on efficient building design and we
can provide really meaningful cash incentives.
I mean, that sounds kind of expensive though.
Like, how can you afford to do that?
Provide cash incentives?
Oh, it's still a lot cheaper for us
to provide incentive than it is for us
to buy that kilowatt of energy from renewables,
or from somewhere else, and serve it to them.
So the population of Burlington is 42,000.
I mean, so somebody watching this video in Chicago
will be like, OK, well we have over 2 million people here.
How is this possible on a mass scale in big cities?
And like, is this even something that– is it really
You have to step back from looking
at the size of the cities and look at the technology itself.
We're seeing a massive change– revolution– in energy.
The system that we have had for the last 100, 110, 120
years in electricity is breaking down.
And we're really moving away from this old style,
hub-and-spoke system, where you had one big giant power
plant in the middle, pushing power out
to all these little homes and businesses,
to one that's really decentralized.
So we're looking block by block, house by house
to create your own micro-grid, where you can create power
on the roof during the day, store it
in your basement for night time.
Pretty soon, every block in Chicago can be its own utility.
And that's a great thing because that is the system that's
going to be more resilient, it is going to be more affordable,
and it's ultimately going to be cleaner and greener
in the decades to come.
And as a utility, I would say that the two choices
utilities have are to perish or to get with the program.
And here at Burlington electric, we're
going to get with the program.
Our customers want control of their destiny and power,
just like they want control of their own phone
and their computer.
And that's, you know, that's the secret of the future, I think.
Secret of the future.
There you go.
There you go.
So what do you guys think?
Is Burlington on the right track?
Is it actually important to use 100% renewable energy,
or is there something else we should be focusing on?
Let us know in the comments.
Also, huge thanks to Miguel Franco.
He's been a long time supporter of our show and a contributor
to our Kickstarter campaign.
He's got a YouTube channel called Mario of Seven Stars.
If you're interested, there's a link in the description.
You should go check it out.
Thanks for watching.
Don't forget to Like and Subscribe.
And special thanks to our Patreon subscribers for making
this episode possible.
Last week we asked you whether or not
we should feel responsible for the Monk Parakeet introduce
to the Chicago area.
And this is what you had to say.
Steph D said that we should take responsibility for these birds
because a lot of the species that we think of as native now,
weren't always native.
And if the Monk Parakeets weren't
affecting the ecosystem in disastrous ways,
we should just let them be.
Grant Hurst said, unfortunate as it
would be for the Monk Parakeets to die off, that's just nature.
We shouldn't go out of our way to remove them,
but we also shouldn't go out of our way to try to save them.
And NicosMind said something interesting.
If these birds managed to survive
the recent harsh winters, that probably means they are hardier
and their children will be tougher too.
And hopefully, over time, they will
become a new species specially adapted for the climate
here in Chicago.
Next week, we're going to look at one
of the most important inventions in US history, a simple device
that reshaped the entire landscape of our country,
and brought an end to the Wild West.
Yes, barbed wire.
Uh, you'll just have to see the video to understand.
Thanks for watching, and we'll see you next week.