100% Renewable Powered Town Is The Best Place To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse

Yves here. Yes, the headline is clickbait-y, but I thought it was fun so I kept it. And readers no doubt will point out that residents surely use cars and gas-powered delivery services like UPS, so while the town as a government entity has made important strides on its energy use patterns, its citizens no doubt have a way to go.

By Irina Slav, a writer for the U.S.-based Divergente LLC consulting firm with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. Originally published at OilPrice

The idea of a completely green community, relying exclusively on renewable energy and emitting zero harmful chemicals seems far-fetched today, despite decades of renewable power innovation that has been substantially spurred in the last 20 years as the effects of climate change have become strikingly obvious.

Yet, there is a town in the Northeastern U.S., bordering on Canada, which has almost made this idea a reality. Almost, because it is not 100 percent emission-free, but it is entirely sustainable.

Meet Burlington, Vermont. It draws nearly all of its power from renewable sources, combining wood, wind, hydropower, and solar. For those of a nit-picking persuasion, “nearly” in this case means that last year, one gas-powered plant contributed 0.06 percent of the total power supply of the city.

This sounds exciting, and in many ways, it is. The city, population 42,000, has taken the idea of mutually beneficial cooperation between local government and its citizens to a whole new level, it seems, betting big on energy conservation and local farming.

It looks like everyone is doing their fair share to make Burlington a good place to live, and although Senator Bernie Sanders has been hailed as one of the main figures responsible for spurring local politics in the right direction, he is not alone. Somehow, Burlingtoners have over the last few decades all decided to work towards a common goal, and are now reaping the fruit of their labors.

So how did they do it? Burlington’s green drive looks almost utopian, but it is a very real town with publicly available information about its power sources. This is how we know that about 42 percent of its energy needs are satisfied by a power plant that burns wood chips. And despite its sustainability, these chips are precisely why Burlington is not 100 percent emission-free.

The McNeil power plant burns 76 tons of wood chips every hour, producing some 50 MW of power. This amount is enough to power the entire town, but half of its power is sold outside the state: the plant is equally owned by the Vermont Electric Department and a number of minority shareholders.

The amount of wood required is not insignificant. So where does all this wood come from? It comes from logging residue and cull materials from woodcutting operations in nearby forests, most of it within 60 miles of Burlington, ensuring transportation costs are kept low. The plant boasts a very strict procedure to make sure the harvesting of the material is sustainable, such as getting most of its wood from partial cuts aimed at improving the growing conditions for other trees.

But wait—wood-burning emits CO2 like nobody’s business! In fact, unsustainable wood-burning is responsible for emissions to the tune of 0.39 kg/kWh, much higher than crude oil, gas, and fuels derived from them. But that’s unsustainable wood-burning, and at McNeil, they have managed to reduce this to one-hundredth of what Vermont allows.

It looks like Burlington is a legit pioneer in energy conservation, so the next logical question is: can all this be replicated?

Well, even if it could be replicated, it is not possible just anywhere. Smaller towns would have a bigger chance of successfully replicating this sustainable atmosphere, especially if they have forests – and/or rivers and lakes and wide open spaces – nearby. But larger cities, and places where forests are not plentiful, would have a tougher go.

But one similarly sized town in oil-dynasty Texas has decided to give sustainable energy a whirl.

Unlike Burlington, Georgetown, Texas, is a very conservative town, politically speaking. But the clean and sustainable goal goes beyond political differences: the Texas town of 55,000 does not want to tie itself the ups and downs in oil and gas prices: it would rather depend on the much more stable prices of wind energy, Texas being the biggest producer of wind energy in the U.S—a crown that it wears proudly along with its crown for being the Biggest Oil Producer in the US. I guess everything really is bigger in Texas.

Next year, the Texas town plans to be fully powered by wind and solar. But as one would guess, this may be less about the environment, and more about simple economics. And when it comes to energy conservation, economic reasons are often more likely to drive change than abstract environmentalism. Everyone likes cheaper and reliable energy, and everyone likes the thought of being self-sufficient and sustainable—free from the shackles of America’s power grid, Middle Eastern oil, and price fluctuations. And of course, safe in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

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  1. rusti

    Almost, because it is not 100 percent emission-free, but it is entirely sustainable.

    While I applaud Burlington’s initiative, this is overstatement to the point of absurdity. Are they manufacturing their own solar panels and wind turbines from resource extraction to design to manufacturing? The communication equipment and vehicles? How will the economics of burning residue from logging operations look when those logging operations are cut off from their customers?

    All of these things depend on massively complicated supply chains that touch on every continent, and a lot of green energy initiatives inadvertently serve to shift most of the carbon emissions to places outside the city limits (or national borders). Decoupling from the outside world and living in John Michael Greer’s “Retropia” seems entirely illusory to me, so we still need massive space-race level investment in new energy generation and storage, energy conservation, and political action to discourage commercial activity where the costs are externalized to the oceans or atmosphere.

  2. dbk

    On the same topic, with more detail on the history and politics, plus discussion of sustainable agriculture/Burlington’s overall economy


    Fairly long-form, but well worth the read. It shows (a) how long-term such goals are, and (b) how comprehensive Burlington’s approach is.

    Another small city worth following in this regard is Dubuque, IA in the heart of the Rust Belt. Dubuque hosts the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference yearly.
    See http://www.gscdubuque.com/

    1. sufferinsuccotash

      Probably. And Bill McKibben has been seen using plastic shopping bags.
      That pretty much discredits those dirty hippie tree-huggers, doesn’t it?

      1. kimyo

        a clearly false claim like ‘100% renewables’ leads people to believe that there are proven solutions when in fact there are none.

        1) burlington cannot operate their snow plows, garbage trucks and school buses without fossil fuels.

        2) those same plows, trucks and buses regularly require replacement tires, alternators, and timing belts, and thus rely on a global network of resource extraction, factories, cargo ships and tractor trailers, all of which are powered by fossil fuels.

        whether or not bill mckibben mixes his recyclables in with his poubelle has no bearing on the matter.

      2. Foppe

        I could care less about the shopping bags, but the only reason why McKibben & 350 (and every other major “environmental” 501c out there) don’t advocate for veganism as the only dietary pattern consistent with caring about “environmental issues” is fear of donations drying up because people will feel “uncomfortable” over being told this. And so everyone remains silent, from McKibben to (Naomi) Klein with her book about “the importance of bottom-up/grassroots activism” to GreenPeace to the WWF — all putting the continued existence of the butterers of their bread, their popularity and their egos (because of the connection between social status and animal (product) use/consumption) before the facts at hand.

  3. John Wright

    Imagine if enough people migrated to Burlington to double the population.

    Would Burlington be able to scale up and be renewable?

    This article is truly cherry picking, and Burlington has some rare advantages such as small population, hydropower availability and a large enough forest nearby that can be sustainably harvested.

    How many other areas in the USA have a resource complement which would allow them to behave similarly, assuming the political will can be found?

    If the USA population were much smaller, say at the 76 million of 1900, we’d have a better chance of moving closer to the Burlington model, but at about 4x, the problem seems impossible to solve..

    Even the “we still need massive space-race level investment in new energy generation” suggestion by another poster optimistically assumes that a solution exists and we simply have to pour enough cash into the investment to make it happen.

    If the USA were to do the massive investment in new energy generation, implying accelerated generation of CO2 during this investment, while continuing to generate CO2 for the rest of society’s needs, if the massive investment fails, we’d be even further behind the climate change 8 ball.

    BTW, I’m writing this from CA, where the forest service estimated that 102 million trees died from the effects of the drought, and as these decay, we’ll probably swamp out Burlington’s positive news story with room to spare.

    Perhaps I am simply unable to see a smooth landing for the climate change conundrum.

    1. Alex

      Um, the article itself provides counter-evidence to your 4th sentence.

      Georgetown identified the resources that work best for the Texas environment.

      There is no solution to climate change.

      There are many different solutions, each one based on local conditions and requirements.

      1. Carl

        Yeah well, there’s not enough wind in the local Georgetown area to power much of anything; I suspect the city’s commitment to this particular source involves electrical transmission from the wind farms of West Texas, which is quite a distance, and undercuts the “local, sustainable” theme.

    2. rusti

      Even the “we still need massive space-race level investment in new energy generation” suggestion by another poster optimistically assumes that a solution exists and we simply have to pour enough cash into the investment to make it happen.

      I’m not insinuating there’s any guarantee of a happy outcome, but I don’t see any other politically viable thing to try, since shearing the population down to 76 million (presumably starting with the higher net-worth individuals with a larger carbon footprint) is going to encounter some resistance. Our current course of action of introducing superficial countermeasures, like electric cars with 90 kWh battery packs, isn’t a winner in the long-run either.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      “Imagine if…”

      The population of VT has stayed relatively stable for decades – it’s been ~600K for as long as I can remember. And right there as you suggested is the solution to our energy and many other problems – zero or negative population growth.

      VT also has a lot more forest land than it did a century ago as many small farms have ceased operating so wood use there at least is a lot more sustainable than it had been in the past. In my own lifetime I’ve seen wild animals that were not around when I was a kid make a comeback – wild turkey, bald eagles and moose are all fairly commonplace now. The state was a bit ahead of the curve regarding conservation with people like Frederick Billings leading the way back in the 19th century.

      I admit to being biased here as a former classmate is the current mayor however I think we should applaud Burlington’s achievements rather than trying to poke holes in them. They’ve certainly done a lot more than most other places.

      Now the reason for low population growth in VT isn’t due to some inherent virtue of the residents there but more likely due to the fact that most people would rather not freeze their asses off their whole life. The problem I foresee if we can’t slow down climate change is that VT will become more temperate causing people to migrate there from places like CA, bringing the problems caused by excess population with them.

      1. cyclist

        Efforts like this should be applauded, even if it is only a stepping stone. I live and work in a fairly well-area of suburban NYC where people almost take pride in being extravagant and wasteful (e.g.spending lunch hour in an air-conditioned car with the engine idling playing with one’s phone). It is really clear to me, partly due to my coming from much more humble beginnings, that one can still have a very fulfilling life without the sort of waste I witness every day.

    4. Waldenpond

      This just isn’t a good example of sustainable. Relying on woodlands? How many communities would have a suitable person to woodland ratio. Importing oil bad- importing solar panels good. The oil industry destroys the environment?… so does harvesting goods/manufacturing solar panels, so does building dams.

      A population reduction and conservation could have helped (things like shifting away from home refrigerators and dryers). I don’t think there is time for choices in the matter. As societies we already tolerate famine and starvation and do not rebuild areas impacted by earthquakes, floods and fire. There are areas used to living with brown outs now. I’m expected to believe that humans are all of a sudden going to whip into action as it ramps up?

      The massive rebuild proposal is like the people who propose cutting down mature forests as young growing trees absorb more. Somehow the cutting keeps happening and the replanting never does.

  4. Some Guy

    There is a province (population 8 million) in Canada, bordering on North-Eastern U.S. that gets all its power from renewable sources, and has been doing this for decades, it even exports huge volumes of renewable power to all of its neighbours. Even home heating is primarily electric and hence renewable powered.

    Just saying…

    1. Katharine

      > Even home heating is primarily electric and hence renewable powered.

      Not necessarily. Can you document that there is no coal or natural gas used in generating the electricity? That certainly wouldn’t be true for my power company.

      1. ocop

        I believe Some Guy is referring to Quebec who’s state power company is Hydro Quebec. The power from HQ is overwhelmingly hydro and they have recently and continue to build VERY large projects which dwarf anything we are building in the US.* 99% Hydro. I think they’ve got a nuke in there somewhere too, and probably the occasional combustion turbine, but that’s in the rounding error; all the better to sell to the Northeast, I guess.

        *For good environmental reasons. Also very few people (presumably HQ buys off the First Nations) near the arctic circle to complain about inundating mass areas and literally rerouting rivers. Not withstanding the general neoliberal bent of US politics, but our landmark environmental legislation is extremely stringent even relative to other OECD countries.

        1. john c. halasz

          HQ closed down it’s nuke last year. It generates 37000 MW plus about 5500 MW from Labrador which is marketed by them, with a total output of 45000 MW. However peak demand in Quebec is 39000 MW and occurs in the dead of winter. Very cheap electricity rates have encouraged highly inefficient electric heating. If instead they would charge market rates, (and it doesn’t really matter, since as a public corporation almost all profit is returned to the tax-payers one way or another), then that would encourage conservation and efficiency, leaving much more electricity for export, thereby securing the province’s shaky public debt against neo-liberal threats, (Quebec being just about the last strong hold of social democracy in North America.)

      1. MtnLife

        Not sure about the irony but building materials can have a lot of chemicals (pressure treating, finishes, etc) that you really don’t want to burn without proper scrubbers. Logging waste is at least “clean” in that sense.

      2. Scott

        The source of wood for biomass plants its very big deal and drives the plant’s economics and its environmental footprint. They range from the good (logging waste and sawdust) to the poor (growing and harvesting trees for fuel) to the horrible (old railroad ties).

        Views towards construction debris vary, but in large part this is the result of regulations surrounding air permits. Initially regulators assumed that most wood would be pretty much natural (untreated) and thus require little air pollution equipment. However, much of the construction and demolition waste is treated with harsh chemicals, including arsenic, which is the emitted into the atmosphere when the wood is burned.

  5. vlade

    Getting rid of fosil fuel subsidies (which globally I believe are measured in trillions of dollars (IMF, so not some Greenpeacenicks data) would help moving towards lowering emission and alternate energy sources.
    But it’s too unpalatable politically.

    1. Dirk77

      I would like to think not. But when you see people like Merkel bringing in immigrants to keep house prices up, you know that Growth is still king.

  6. Sittingstill

    A small but significant portion of Burlington’s electricity comes from Hydro-Quebec hydrodams, which are in themselves enormously destructive http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16093528. It is mistaken to consider electricity from these sources sustainable in any sense but for carbon emissions. They are part of the Burlington story, and part of the reason why Vermont’s electricity usage has a low carbon footprint.

    If developments like these are part of the solution, then the situation is truly more desprerate than anyone would ever want to believe. I’m a Vermonter, an advocate of renewable power, and think that climate change is a grave and existential threat. Its clear to me that renewables won’t be able to power growth oriented industrial societies – we will either have to shift to a no-growth model, or suffer catastrophic climate change. Simple, stark, sobering.

    1. Some Guy

      They are sustainable in the sense that they are sustainable, meaning that they have been and can be sustained for long periods of time without additional impacts, costs or limitations (i.e. depletion or pollution).

      Of course, if we take ‘sustainable’ to mean puppies, rainbows and everything fuzzy that I love, then no, they are not sustainable, but what is, really. Better to let words mean what they mean.

    2. Jim

      Suppose the manmade CO2 climate change alarmists are wrong. After all, the alarmist position is not falsifiable .If one believes that science says manmade CO2 is a pollutant then one should know that being falsifiable is an important part of any scientific hypothesis or theory. If you don’t know what I am saying then you are just taking on “faith” that man made CO2 is going to cause catastrophic climate change. Faith and science are at two ends of a spectrum of believing. See how, faith and belief have already popped up in a discussion of climate change. If the alarmist position is wrong, then harm will be caused by using wrong assumptions for making policy decisions. As has already happened to the air of London and Paris because of the increased use of diesel vehicles. “Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda,” said Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, a nonprofit group. “It’s been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that’s not too strong a word. It’s a public-health catastrophe.” Money that might be spent making coal emissions cleaner will instead not be made as combined with the increased cost of unneeded carbon sequestration will make them uneconomic. Remember that the alarmist predictions come not from empirical evidence but from computer climate models. Water vapor is the main gas making the Earth livable for humans. There are not even good models for how evaporation and clouds will affect the climate. Look up how many different peer reviewed papers with different explanations for the pause in warming were published. (but the science was settled) It took changing the data from the past (what we all called fudging when doing chemistry lab) to make the pause problem go away. We will see if the past El Nino year has really stopped it. Climate science is far from being settled. If NC readers used the same skepticism that they apply to mainstream economics for alarmist climate science pronouncements one would find that the climate skeptics have many valid points.

      1. different clue

        Pause? There was no pause. Glaciers and icefields and the edges of the major icecaps all melted and retreated steadily over the whole time described as “pause”. It takes net heat to achieve a net meltback of large ice formations. That net heat sunk into melting the ice came from the net heat net-retained by ongoing manmade global warming over the whole time period described as the “pause”. So did the ongoing shrinkage of the Arctic Ocean Sea Ice Field.

        But if I am wrong about that . . . if there was no warming and no meltback of any ice formations over that whole period, then the sea level did not rise ( even though we think it did) and it will not rise even more ( even though we think it will). In which case, this is your contrarian investment opportunity to buy all the real estate you can afford in Miami, coastal Louisiana, Virginia, Carolina, etc. etc. Be bold. Plant the seeds of future fortune.

      2. pretzelattack

        sigh. you went wrong with the first sentence, climate science is falsifiable.

        .If one believes that science says manmade CO2 is a pollutant then one should know that being falsifiable is an important part of any scientific hypothesis or theory
        science said manmade co2 is causing global warming, it has nothing to do with whether it was legally declared a pollutant. the science is solid, it’s backed up by basic science, not just computer models, and not one major science organization, of whatever ideological stripe, has claimed it is bad science. wherever you are getting your information, it’s a bad source.

    3. susan the other

      i know that manufacturers are busy making appliances, etc. low energy. that’s a trend we should demand control over because we do things backwards now. we should figure out how much energy we can produce sustainably and then ONLY THEN design the stuff we need and better ways to cooperate. we don’t have much time left to waste.

  7. EndOfTheWorld

    I still say they gotta come up with a way to produce hydrogen in a non-polluting manner. Once you have the H, cars will run without pollution. And quietly.

    1. different clue

      Electrolysis of water into hydrogen and oxygen. Release the oxygen back into the atmosphere. Trap and store the hydrogen for future oxidation with that same oxygen taken from the same air the oxygen was released into. If the electricity is renewable, the hydrogen will be renewable.

  8. heresy101

    The real issue isn’t local, but if renewables can all be local that’s great and usually cheaper.

    Working for a muni that is about 100% GHG free (25% large hydro, 40% geothermal, 10% wind, and 25% biogas) and none is currently local shows that renewable is still possible. But, I’m pushing to spend $80M on a local facility running on sewage gas. Oh, solar doesn’t fit our load profile.

    Most of the focus on renewables is only solar and wind but other renewable sources – biogas, wood waste (as in Vermont), small hydro, geothermal, green waste, sewage gas, and run of the river – can provide a large amount of US electricity. It is estimated that about 15% of California’s energy can come from biogas energy. https://www.epa.gov/agstar

    Renewables are growing rapidly, especially wind ($30/MWh) and solar ($40/MWh). In Texas, they are sqeezing out coal and in some cases natural gas. The problem with both these resources is that expensive transmission lines need to be built because they are not local resources. The major problem with non-local resources (renewable, or not) in California is that CAISO peanut butters transmission charges on all energy delivered and that adds significantly to the cost. That is why local is preferable.

    California will easily meet its 2030 mandate of 50% renewable electricity. One reason for this is that codes and standards cause new appliances etc to use less electricity. All California electric utilities and most other US utilites have flat load forecasts (usage) because of this.

  9. Newtownian

    I’m a little surprised by the innocence and data gaps in this article and the feedback. No matter. I guess its because many are talking economists of the non ecological type.

    Look it is possible for the world to go sustainable. Some Californians did the sums a while back and figured that a 10 TerraWatt world was possible (as against the 18 TW or so world we have now). I hope it will happen.

    And what these Vermontians are doing is grand. But its still not enough and the rest of the analysis is a bit sad because it does not even touch on critical points e.g:
    1. It does not touch on the problem of transport which gobbles up huge amounts of energy. Electric cars and snow ploughs? I expect they have a few but not many. In any case transport should have been in the mix.

    2. Any good carbon accountant knowns you also need to include all the energy inputs via for example Life Cycle Assessment. A particular bug bear is embedded energy . The energy used to fabricate stuff say in China. The US has been dropping its nominal energy use by export to China.

    3. Want to know the shortfall roughly? Its easy to calculate. The town has 42000 and their power demand PEAKS at around 58 MW. This implies about 1.3 kW per person. By comparison the average US usage of primary energy overall is about 8 to 10 kW per person.

    Conclusion. As Han Solo said “Dont get cocky kid”.

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