‘The US government has checked out on renewables’: can cities fill the gap

Burlington, the first US city to run entirely on clean power, is inspiring other cities to make progress on climate change

— Burlington in Vermont has already given the world Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and provided the political launchpad for Bernie Sanders. Now the city’s successful switch to 100% renewable electricity is spurring US mayors to fill the gaping void on climate change action left by the Trump administration.

winooski river
The Winooski River powers Burlington’s hydropower plant, which was switched on in 2014. Photograph: Alamy


Burlington didn’t 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,” says Miro Weinberger, the wire-haired mayor of Burlington.

“The job of every elected official in this country changed the day Donald Trump was elected” — Miro Weinberger

The achievement has since been thrown into sharp relief by the election of Donald 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,” says 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 meet.

“It’s not acceptable that America has completely retreated from the climate change conversation,” he says. “I think leaders realised that we are going to have to make progress on this even when the federal government has checked out.”

solar installation
Vermont’s largest solar installation is situated in South Burlington Photograph: Toby Talbot/AP


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 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 then mayor. It has since carried much of the burden, supplying around half of Burlington’s electricity needs by burning around 400,000 tonnes of waste wood a year that’s 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 around 2,000C. The resulting steam turns a huge turbine that generates the electricity.

bernie sanders
Bernie Sanders in 1981, six months after scoring a surprise victory to become mayor of Burlington. Photograph: Donna Light/AP


“We have to shift the woodchip piles around so they don’t get overheated and self combust,” says 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.”

The path to 100% 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.

“The city council began to shift to reflect a progressive point of view and they brought along the private sector” — Will Raap

“Bernie started getting more people involved and out of the woodwork came ideas,” says 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.”

Other, larger cities are also looking to push ahead. Last year Atlanta became the largest city in the south to pledge 100% 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 have also thrown their weight behind the goal. Carmel, in Indiana, has installed 116 roundabouts, a rarity in the US, in recent years in order 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,” says James Brainard, a Republican who has been Carmel’s 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.”

carmel, indiana
Carmel, Indiana, has installed 116 roundabouts in part to cut emissions from cars idling at traffic light intersections. Photograph: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images


Cities can make major progress in cutting emissions, according to Stanford academic Mark Jacobson, who has devised a roadmap for US cities to go 100% renewable. “The only obstacle really is knowledge,” he says,. But 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 in order 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 15 sq mile area, it’s much harder to move the needle,” says Weinberger.

“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.”

In Burlington, the next stage of the masterplan to become fully carbon-free is to electrify its transport, a trickier proposition as the city doesn’t fully control this area. The regional transport authority will run four electric buses by the end of the year, while the city is offering rebates of up to $1,800 (£1,363) 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,” says Jennifer Green, Burlington’s sustainability chief. “Now that it’s clean we want people back.”

by Oliver Milman | The Guardian