Contributing Writer for Wake Up World

The largest city in VermontU.S.A.has shownthat we don’t need polluting and dangerous energy sources — like nuclear, coal and petroleum — to meet our energy demands. In fact, the city produces more electricity than its citizens require, all by utilizing completely green technology. Acutelyaware of the risksassociated withconventional energy production, the city has taken a major step in reducing these hazards by adopting a sustainable model for its energy needs.

Surprisingly, this stewardship of the environment also has another perk: long-term financial gain.

The Problem with Conventional Energy Sources

With the devastating aftermath of Fukushima far from over, the dangers of nuclear energy are still on the minds of many around the world. As starkly observed by Ethan Indigo Smith in the articleNuclear –the Radioactive Fly in the Sustainable Energy Ointment:

All we know for sure is that radiation is dangerous and destructive to all biological beings on this planet. We know there is no diluting radioactive waste, there is only dispersal. We know that nuclear waste is virtually indestructible for millions of years. We know that no amount of energy is worth risking our existence. And we know that, scientifically speaking, the risk cycle of nuclear power generation cannot be validated as “safe” until waste can be permanently removed, stored and degraded, and potential impacts to human and environmental health entirely mitigated.”

Unfortunately, nuclear isn’t the only hazardous energy source. Fossil fuels are wreaking havoc on the environment too. Heavy metals are released into the air through the burning of coal, while petroleum and natural gas add heavily to our carbon footprint. Compound this with the destructive practices of obtainingthese energy sources —such asfracking, mining and drilling — and we pay an exceptionally high environmental price.Fossil fuels also lead to excessive — and costly — aggression through warfare in an attempt to control oil rights in the Middle East.

Thankfully, we do have positive alternatives available that are both sustainable and profitable. And Vermont is leading the way.

Green is Good for the Pocketbook

Unlike the rest of the United States, Burlington hasn’t had an increase in energy costs since 2009. Ken Nolan is part of the team that runs Burlington Electric, a local utility company that serves the city’s 42,000 residents. As it turns out, being green makes fiscal sense.

The city is always looking at the environmental impact. Greenhouse gas reduction is a major thing that we’re concerned about and we are always trying to improve on. But in looking at whether to buy renewable power, we really were focused on an economic decision at the time. So our financial analysis at that time indicated to our– actually, to our surprise– that the cheapest long term financial investment for us with the least amount of risk was to move in this direction,” said Nolan during a PBS interview.

The financial benefit of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy isn’t trivial. By embracing technologies like wind, hydro, solar and biomass, the city will save about $20 million dollars over the next twenty years.

A big chunk of the energy for the city is produced by hydropower sourced from Maine as well as their own plant on the Winooski river. Around 35 percent is generated from biomass, in this case, wood that is burned to produce steam. And another 20 percent comes from wind and solar.

If you’re questioning whether this template can be applied to a wide-range of cities, Taylor Ricketts Ph.D, professor of Environmental Science at the University of Vermont, points out:

There’s nothing magic about Burlington in terms of where it sits. It’s not a lot windier here, or a lot more rivers here, and certainly not a lot sunnier here than lots of parts of the U.S. It was just a bunch of decisions made over ten years or more, to get towards renewable energy.

Not everyone is impressed with Burlington’s 100 percent renewable claim, however. Sandra Levine, an environmental attorney, argues that, while she applauds Burlington’s efforts, she thinks the city is taking liberties with its accounting and with the type of renewable energy it uses. For example, the city relies heavily on the old Maine hydro plant, which isn’t as environmentally healthy as, say, new solar and wind facilities.

Ken Nolan of Burlington Electric believes this line of thinking is shortsighted and purist. He counters that Burlington needs to employ the older renewable facilities for now to prove that they work reliably and profitably. Gradually, their efforts will help to stimulate a growing market for renewable energy inthe entireregion.

Whichever side your on, one aspect is clear: Burlington is off to a good start and has provided an exceptional model for other cities to follow.

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