BURLINGTON, Vt. – The municipally-owned Burlington Electric Department (BED) stands out nationally for its efforts to reduce electric consumption through energy efficiency measures and for getting its electricity from clean energy sources — while keeping electric rates down. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who serves on both the Senate energy and environment committees, recently sat down with BED General Manager Neale Lunderville and Chief Operating Officer Darren Springer to learn more.
“At a time when climate change is already having devastating effects across the globe, it is critically important that electric utilities aggressively pursue energy efficiency and move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. I am enormously proud that my home town utility, BED, is doing just that,” Sanders said.
‘EXTRAORDINARY’ RESULTS THROUGH ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Since 1989, Burlington Electric Department and its customers have invested tens of millions of dollars in a variety of energy efficiency initiatives. These efforts have included updating homes and businesses with energy efficient lighting, installing more efficient HVAC systems, weatherizing buildings with insulation and improved windows, and incentivizing customers to replace aging appliances with energy efficient models.
The result: electric consumption in Burlington today is about 4 percent lower than it was in 1989, despite significant economic growth in the city. Over the same period, Burlington Electric notes, electricity usage in Vermont increased by more than 10 percent, and nearly 28 percent nationally. Sanders called those results “extraordinary.”
“Investing in energy efficiency not only protects the environment, it saves consumers money and creates jobs,” Sanders said.
BED Chief Operating Officer Darren Springer estimates energy efficiency saves the utility’s customers almost $11 million every year. Worth noting, energy efficiency jobs are a major reason why the Union of Concerned Scientists recently found that Vermont is the overall leader in clean energy jobs per capita in the United States. Moreover, Springer says that if the entire United States had achieved the same reduction in electricity use that Burlington has since 1990, it would have achieved the emissions equivalent of removing more than 230 dirty, coal-fired power plants.
100% RENEWABLE GENERATION
Not only is Burlington using less electricity than thirty years ago, but the city is the first in the United States to get all of its power from renewable sources.
“Burlington Electric is proud to have led the way for Burlington to become the first city in the nation to source 100 percent of our power from renewable generation, while not raising rates since 2009,” said Neale Lunderville, BED’s general manager.
The city’s electric utility has charted an ambitious path for the future. “Burlington Electric is charging up the path toward our goal of becoming a net zero energy city,” Lunderville said.
BED currently obtains about 44 percent of its energy from biomass, 35 percent from hydro power, 19 percent from wind, and about 2 percent from solar. While BED currently gets just a sliver of its energy from solar (including 500 kilowatts of power produced on top of a parking garage at Burlington International Airport and 107 kilowatts at BED’s Pine Street headquarters), Springer said the utility hopes to increase its solar portfolio by building its own solar projects and by helping Vermonters add solar to their homes and businesses in the near future. BED is also exploring advanced battery storage, which would allow the utility to draw on stored solar energy at night and on cloudy days.
Burlington has a history of leading the way on renewable energy. When Sanders was mayor of Burlington, BED shut down the dirty coal-burning Moran plant on the waterfront and, with other Vermont utilities, constructed the wood-chip fired McNeil Generating Station. The 50-megawatt biomass plant is now Vermont’s largest in-state generator of electricity.
Last year, McNeil purchased wood from 56 different suppliers, the vast majority of whom are small Vermont-based businesses that are located within a 60-mile radius, Springer said. “Ninety-five percent comes from logging residue and cull material created when harvesting higher value wood products. Harvests are conducted in accordance with strict environmental standards specified by the Vermont Public Service Board,” BED’s website states.
The wood-fired power plant uses the waste ash as a soil conditioner for organic crops, and the “bottom ash” is used as a base for building roads.
In 2012, Sanders secured $1 million for BED for an “on-bill financing” pilot project to make it easier for businesses to implement energy efficiency measures. With on-bill financing, BED lends money to customers to make energy upgrades like installing efficient lighting, appliances and HVAC systems. The customer then automatically repays the loan on their monthly electricity bill. Since the deals are structured so the energy savings are greater than the loan repayment amount, the upgrades pay for themselves.
So far, 18 projects have been completed, totaling $778,292 worth of efficiency work, and another four projects are underway. The largest is the Hannaford supermarket in Burlington’s New North End, which borrowed $238,000 to install power-saving lighting. The project is slated to pay for itself in just three years through the energy savings.
BED, and other electric utilities throughout the state, are also being prompted by a new Vermont Renewable Energy Standard that encourages utilities to work toward reducing fossil fuel use in a broad number of sectors through technologies such as electric vehicles and cold-climate heat pumps, Springer said. One way BED plans to achieve this requirement is by helping fund the purchase of electric buses used by Green Mountain Transit for bus routes in Burlington and throughout northwestern Vermont.
No other state has placed such a comprehensive requirement on utilities to reduce fossil fuels in the heating and transportation sectors, said Springer. “That is unique,” he said. “No one has done that anywhere else in the country.”
“Every utility in Vermont is required to supply a certain amount of renewable electricity, rising to 75 percent by 2032,” Springer said. “We have already exceeded the 2032 targets at BED.”
Burlington Electric is not the only Vermont utility that is making strides in energy innovations.
THE BIG PICTURE
Burlington Electric’s comprehensive, innovative strategy should be emulated by utilities throughout the United States, Sanders said.
Virtually the entire scientific community agrees that climate change is real and that it is caused by human activity. In the last two centuries, we have burned fossil fuels to heat our buildings, generate electricity and power our vehicles, releasing huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. According to NASA, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is now the highest it has been in the past 650,000 years, which explains why 15 of the hottest years on record have all occurred since 2000.
Just this month, the National Academy of Science said climate events all over the world are being shaped by global warming, including record-breaking heat waves, catastrophic floods, fires, drought, and other extreme weather events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that unless global greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced, temperatures will continue to rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century, with devastating consequences.
“If we want to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, we must act boldly to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy. And when we do that, we will also create millions of new clean energy jobs that our economy desperately needs,” Sanders said. “I am proud that Vermont is leading the way.”
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