Orion Magazine


by GINGER STRAND April 2015

Pasted Graphic
Photograph by Corey Hendrickson

IF THE ZOMBIE apocalypse comes, I’m heading to Burlington, Vermont. The state’s largest city sits on a huge freshwater lake, half a day’s drive from Boston, the nearest metropolis. It has urban farms, coffee roasters, breweries, and a chocolate factory—things that help take the sting out of total societal breakdown. But it also has something few places will have when zombies are roaming the interstates: its own local power.
“The fact that we have physical generators within the city, as well as nearby, does give us the ability to disconnect from the rest of Vermont and bring the load back up,” Ken Nolan told me. Nolan is manager of power resources for the Burlington Electric Department, a municipally owned utility. We were sitting in the conference room, which has a coat rack shaped like a utility pole. I had made the mistake of calling it a
telephone pole, and was gently but firmly corrected. Outside, a small wind turbine spun briskly in the fall bluster.
Burlington had recently announced that it had purchased a small, run-of-river hydroelectric plant adjacent to the city limits, meaning it was now sourcing all of the city’s power from local and renewable sources. The city also has a biomass plant inside the city boundary, and it purchases power from a wind installation with four turbines that are visible from the downtown hills. Those three sources are not the only power providers Burlington uses: the city sells some of the green power it makes at a profit and buys power from other regional renewable providers to make up the balance. But in a pinch, the biomass plant, hydro plant, and windmills would be sufficient to power the town.
“Our connections to the rest of Vermont happen in three places, so we could physically activate three switches to island the city and use the generation internally,” Nolan said. “But I don’t think anybody intended it for that kind of worst-case scenario.”
Nobody expects the zombie apocalypse! But even without nomadic hordes of ravenous undead, Burlington has something that more and more communities are seeing as desirable: ­community-owned power.
We’ve grown used to the idea of buying local, eating local, drinking local. Now people are talking about
generating local. Communities across the country have begun developing their own energy resources, whether through municipal (city-owned) utilities, like Burlington’s, by forming limited liability corporations, or entering partnerships with private developers. And not just Prius-driving, NPR-listening places like Burlington. Spearfish, South Dakota, bought and refurbished an old mining operation’s hydro plant. Willmar, Minnesota, built two wind turbines on its school grounds. Towns as far-flung as Carrboro, North Carolina; University Park, Maryland; Brewster, Massachusetts; and St. George, Utah, have installed community solar arrays. Gainesville, Florida, has used very attractive guaranteed payments known as “feed-in tariffs” to encourage residents and businesses to install photovoltaic panels. As a result, the city now generates sixteen megawatts of power—about enough for sixteen thousand homes—from Florida sunshine.
Reasons for wanting to develop local power resources vary, but chief among them is a desire for greater resilience. Our electricity infrastructure is aging and hasn’t changed much since the days of Edison and Westinghouse. The fragility of the electrical grid was demonstrated by the Northeast blackout of 2003, which shut down power for more than 60 million people in eight Northeastern states and Ontario. There have been many smaller service disruptions since then. Furthermore, the antiquated system must deal with ever-increasing demand and extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy. And state and federal governments aren’t making the needed upgrades. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” gives it an embarrassing D+. Investment in the electricity grid alone is falling behind, say the engineers, at the rate of $11 billion a year.
The zombies may not be at the gate, but plenty of other things are. And some communities no longer want to wait for the state or federal government to do something about aging power lines, erratic service, or high electricity rates. They have decided it’s time to take things into their own hands. To see how that looks, I went to Burlington. A century ago, the town wrested control of its power utility from a private company because citizens felt that rates were too high. The Burlington Electric Department has been owned by the people ever since. It generates much of its power with municipally owned power plants, and purchases the rest from private providers in the region. It seemed like a good place to see community power in action.
“HOW’S IT RUNNING?” John Irving boomed to a couple of technicians sitting in front of computer screens. “Smooth as silk,” came the reply.
We were in Burlington’s McNeil Generating Station, a biomass plant a mere wood-chip’s throw from downtown. Irving is the plant manager, which for someone like me who’s always chilly, seems like a dream job. The temperature inside the facility ranged from hot day in Burlington to hot day in Phoenix. But Irving wasn’t breaking a sweat. His enthusiasm for his work was evident from the well-thumbed copy of
Pellet Mill Magazine on his desk to the ebullient pride with which he showed me around. After we checked out the control room, he handed me a hardhat and goggles, led me to the boiler, crouched down, and opened the door. It looked exactly like what it is: a woodstove nine stories tall. The inside glowed like the bowels of hell. Once I’d expressed my admiration, Irving led the way up, through successively warmer floors. “Heat really does rise!” he said cheerily.
At the top, we stepped out onto the roof, where we gazed down on the boiler’s fuel: seven acres of chipped scrap wood—mostly branches and small limbs trimmed off during timber operations. According to its charter, the plant can only buy wood from sustainable logging. A front-end loader was busily shoveling wood chips into a chute that led to the boiler’s maw.
We strolled across the roof to the other side. From there, we could see a guy unloading empty pallets from a pickup at the Wood and Yard Waste Depot. Two percent of the plant’s fuel comes from scrap wood and tree trimmings dropped off by local residents. “We get a lot of Christmas trees,” Irving told me.
Burlington built the McNeil plant in the early 1980s, after decommissioning a coal plant on the city’s Lake Champlain waterfront. Oil prices were sky high, Three Mile Island had just soured the nation on nuclear power, and residents were happy to see the dirty coal plant shuttered. The electric commissioners began looking into alternatives. It didn’t take them long to settle on woody biomass: they could source it locally, and its relatively low emissions meant the power plant could be located in the city limits. From the roof you can see the neighborhoods that flank it on all sides. “Most plants are off in the puckerbrush,” Irving explained, “so if they have a problem, nobody knows about it.”
The history of electricity in America is a tale of banishment to the puckerbrush. The McNeil plant is kind of a throwback: power generation today is usually divorced from power consumption. But that wasn’t always the case.
Originally, power was produced onsite: mills built milldams; farms erected windmills to pump wells; factories installed steam turbines to drive machinery. Electricity started out the same way. The first American home to be lit with electric lights was supposed to be the mansion of industrialist William H. Vanderbilt. But upon hearing that Thomas Edison had installed a boiler-driven electric generator in her basement, Mrs. Vanderbilt became hysterical and insisted it be removed. Edison installed electric lights in J. P. Morgan’s mansion instead. But the episode taught him something: in at least one respect, America was a nation of Mrs. Vanderbilts. The future lay in consolidated generation: put the machinery in a separate building and run transmission lines to the customers. Soon he was building a plant on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan to deliver electricity to Wall Street and the surrounding neighborhood.
The trend throughout the next century was greater consolidation and centralization. Fossil fuels and nuclear power gain efficiencies of scale when they size up, but no one wants those things in their backyard. Power plants grew huge and distant. Power companies became vertically integrated, meaning one company owned the power plant, the transmission and distribution lines, and often the raw material—water, coal—to make the power. These companies—called utilities—could be publicly or privately owned, but because they had a virtual monopoly, they agreed to be heavily regulated. The regulatory system that evolved was designed to accommodate these big utilities and behemoth power plants. Consumers, for their part, didn’t think about any of it: they simply plugged in and slurped up their watts.
Then came the 1970s energy crisis. As energy costs rose and consumer demand fell for the first time in a century, utilities suffered near ruin. Meanwhile, the nascent environmental movement was driving a desire for cleaner power. Congress abolished the utility monopoly in 1978, passing a law requiring utilities to purchase power from small producers. Suddenly, small-scale generation was possible again. Companies could refurbish an old milldam, install a wind turbine, or build a biomass plant, and get in on the electricity market. And that meant communities could do the same.
MY SECOND STOP in Burlington was the city’s newest power facility, a small, run-of-river hydroelectric plant across the river from downtown called Winooski One.
“That’s the view out my window during spring high water,” the plant’s chief operator, Jon Clark, told me, pointing to a photo­graph of the Winooski River from beneath the surface. In the spring, Clark’s desk in the crowded control room is like the conning tower of a submerged submarine. Fish glide by at eye level. But on this bright fall day, the river was flowing well below the window, and we could look downstream, through a small rocky gorge, to a river bend where some residents were fishing. One floor beneath us, two of the plant’s three turbines thudded away like gargantuan washing machines.
On town meeting day a year ago, nearly 80 percent of Bur­lington voters approved a bond measure to purchase Winooski One. The hydro plant demonstrates another reason communities might want to own their own sources of power: economics. During the twenty years that the bond is being paid off, power from Winooski One will be priced competitively with other options. But once the bond is paid off, the plant will continue to generate power for decades—with the only cost being its operation. On the day I was there, that meant Clark monitoring the turbines and occasionally pulling a couple of gorgeous landlocked salmon out of the fish lift.
The hydro plant was such a clear financial win that after Burlington officially acquired it last summer, financial rating service Moody’s upped the outlook for the Burlington Electric Department from stable to positive. Not only is Winooski One a well-built and efficient power producer, it also helps insulate the city from the vagaries of oil and gas markets.
“Burlingtonians are concerned about climate change and environmental issues,” Mayor Miro Weinberger told me the next day, when I visited him in his wood-paneled, Green-Mountain-coffee-stocked office in city hall. “But it’s interesting and not entirely expected that by pursuing this strategy we have actually stabilized future energy costs to a surprising degree.”
Greg Pahl, a community power advocate, sees this as one of the key upsides to local energy, whether developed by a small group of citizens or a public utility. Pahl is the author, most recently, of
Power from the People: How to Organize, Finance, and Launch Local Energy Projects. “Most big utilities are large, publicly traded companies,” he told me. “Their main goal as corporations is to generate profits and shareholder value, and often to provide high pay and benefits for top management. The main goal for most communities, in contrast, is to provide for the general well-being of the community. That’s a really big difference.”
Neale Lunderville, interim manager of the city’s electric department, agrees. “Unlike an investor-owned utility, we’re not trying to generate a rate of return for our investors,” he said. “When we look at that bottom line, we’re looking to see how we can reinvest it for the benefit of our customers, or return it in the form of rate decreases. We never have to factor in the return on equity.”
Burlington residential customers generally pay lower electricity rates than the Vermont average. According to the American Public Power Association, public power customers pay rates 13 percent lower on average than those paid by customers of private power utilities. And nonprofit power companies are more likely to be truly interested in helping customers use less power. The Burlington Electric Department offers usage tracking tools, free energy audits, and loan programs for efficiency upgrades. As a result, Burlington uses less power today than it did in 1989—in spite of the fact that its population has grown.
THE THIRD STOP on my Burlington renewable power trifecta was a wind installation on a ridgeline west of town. The four turbines are not in the Burlington city limits, but are visible from downtown.
“The first thing we did was meet with every abutting property owner,” Martha Staskus told me. “We had coffee and donuts and we brought over our plan.”
Staskus is senior project developer for Vermont Environmental Research Associates, the group that helped two local businessmen develop the wind installation. This being Vermont, they had also tapped the hill’s sugar maples. We drove up a winding road past scores of trees laced together with plastic tubing and parked beneath one of the windmills. Inside, the floor vibrated and there was a low buzzing sound, as well as the deep resonant hum as each blade whipped by overhead. A tiny computer screen showed a single number: the rotational speed of the blades. I had never been inside a wind turbine before, and I was finding it difficult, standing inside the slightly claustrophobic tower, not to think of things like pinwheel stems snapping in half or umbrellas turning inside out. Wind exerts so much
force. The tower’s anchor bolts, Martha had told me, were sunk forty feet into the ground.
“The blades and towers were made in the U.S.,” Martha continued. “The blades came in by rail and were brought right up Main Street in Burlington at two in the morning with the help of a local trucking company.” That was only the first of many ways in which taking advantage of nearby energy resources has what’s called a “multiplier effect” for Burlington. Jobs constructing, maintaining, and operating the facility go to local folks. Money earned by the project is kept in the community, instead of becoming dividends for distant shareholders. Dollars spent on fees for goods and services, and even interest on bank loans stay at home, boosting the local economy.
The multiplier effect is significant enough that at least one community has used local power as a central part of its economic redevelopment strategy. Howard, South Dakota, is the county seat of rural Miner County, which, fifteen years ago, was suffering the fate of many agricultural areas. Family farms were vanishing, replaced by industrial agribusiness that sent much of what it earned out of the region. The county was hemorrhaging jobs and population. With grant money from a poverty-relief foundation and the USDA’s Rural Community Development Initiative, the county created a redevelopment strategy that focused on remaking itself as a center for green infrastructure. Two taxpayer-owned wind turbines were constructed by a former resident who had moved away and begun a wind turbine refurbishing business. He moved back, bringing his business with him, and began training out-of-work tractor mechanics to work on turbines.
Today the town produces 10 percent of its power with the turbines, and the success of the program had a cascading effect: other businesses began locating in Miner County, including an organic beef processor and a yacht company that also builds turbine blades. Downtown Howard is alive and well, and the community planning group that drove the process has become the Rural Learning Center, a nonprofit organization based in Howard and dedicated to reimagining rural economies. “Our wind turbines are a symbol of us reinventing our economy,” declares Lindsey Karlson, the center’s community outreach coordinator. “They symbolize our attempt to find industries and opportunities that push toward the future instead of the past.”
SO WHY AREN’T MORE communities jumping on the community power bandwagon? The truth is, while generating energy is pretty straightforward, transmitting and selling it is full of twists and turns. Regardless of how and where it’s generated, virtually all power flows into huge regional grids. Few communities have Burlington’s ability to island themselves and generate power if the rest of their grid has gone dark. To do that requires the creation of a “microgrid,” which more and more communities are discussing. But even without a microgrid, the benefits of community power can include lower rates, better customer service, and a boost for the local economy. And adding in more small, renewable power sources increases the resilience of the grid as a whole. Still, many projects flounder on the reefs of finance.
The most difficult part of a local power project is figuring out the energy market, and how best to operate within it. For starters, building a generating facility is capital intensive. And then there’s the lack of a coherent federal policy on community power. Every state has its own intricate set of laws, regulations, and incentives, and investor-owned utilities can be unhelpful or even downright obstructive.
“What you have to understand is that the rules, regulations, and financing models relating to energy that have been around for decades evolved to reflect large-scale, expensive, centrally located energy facilities,” author and activist Pahl told me. “The laws and rules and regulations that govern these sorts of projects simply don’t fit smaller scale, distributed generation models. Often they simply don’t apply, or make it impossible for small-scale energy producers to get started.”
Not that Pahl wants to be discouraging: far from it. His book lays out plans for launching a local energy project, and surveys a wide variety of case studies where communities developed local energy resources. It can be an arduous process, he says, but “it’s not rocket science.”
According to Nolan, of the Burlington Energy Department, the first thing a community should do is sit down and assess its situation and what it’s trying to accomplish. “It starts with asking a lot of questions,” he said. “What do we want to accomplish in the community? What do we need a power source to do? How much power do we use and when? Are there sources of power that we don’t like, and sources that we prefer?”
The approach will differ depending on a community’s balancing of priorities, such as improving service, lowering rates, and making greener power. If a community wants to pursue greener power, then it needs to consider what natural resources are readily available. Different regions have different local energy resources accessible to them. Some places have timber for biomass; others have loads of sun or good wind or old, small hydro plants that can be retrofitted to generate electricity. But resources also vary from place to place in what they will cost to develop. Wind is expensive to develop in the Northeast, where it tends to work best on ridgelines; it’s cheaper to build in the flatter Plains states.
It’s also important to consider a community’s energy usage ­habits. Given Vermont’s northern clime, solar is only effective a few months of the year. But the time of year when solar power works best—July and August—coincides in many places with peak energy use, because Vermonters tend to heat with oil or gas but air-condition with electricity. That makes solar financially worthwhile for many Vermont towns. But it’s not the top choice for all of them: Vermont’s ski towns are better aligned with wind, because their peak power usage is in winter, when the wind is blowing the most.
Then there are the specifics of the regulatory environment, and the availability of incentives—tax credits or renewable energy credits—that can help offset the cost of building the power facility. (The U.S. Department of Energy, with its database of all federal and state credits and incentives, is a good place to start.)
Once the goals are established, it’s time to consider how to go about accomplishing them. Community power projects can take a variety of forms. The most comprehensive is to create a municipal utility and take control of the whole local system, as Burlington did over a hundred years ago. Some communities do this because they are tired of their private utility dragging its feet on renewable power, as citizens of Boulder, Colorado, were when they voted not to renew a franchise with the city’s private utility that expired in 2010. But there are other reasons as well. Winter Park, Florida, took over its private utility in 2005 because the utility was not making much-needed infrastructure improvements. Rates rose at first, but stabilized within a few years. The public utility is now making money, residents are paying low rates, and profits are being rolled back into further improvements, such as putting wires underground.
In order to avoid a public takeover of investor-owned utilities, some towns simply invest in local power and begin feeding it into the grid. In states that allow group net metering—a pooling of residents to develop a new power source and jointly offset their own power use with it—community can be defined as something as small as a condominium association or group of neighbors. Other states allow community-sponsored energy—sort of like community-sponsored agriculture—in which local residents have the opportunity to invest in a power provider. And still others make it possible for nonprofit entities like towns to form co-operatives or corporations that can take advantage of state and federal tax credits if the energy being produced is ­renewable. Minnesota recently enacted legislation enabling a new version of this known as the “Minnesota Flip,” in which towns can partner with private investors to develop a power resource. The private company takes advantage of the tax credits up front, and the generating facility ultimately reverts to citizen ownership. Other states are showing signs of following suit.
It may seem complicated when spelled out like that. But no one needs to comprehend all of it: a community only needs to figure out its own resource and regulatory context. According to Pahl, a good shortcut is to look around your own state for other successful projects. “If you can find people who’ve already completed a successful project,” he said, “they’re going to be able to help you navigate the technical, legal, and financial issues.”
Almost inevitably, he cautioned, a project runs into roadblocks or hurdles at some point along the way—but there is one key to getting past them. “The one thing that I’ve found with every successful local energy project is a small group of dedicated local residents who are enthusiastic about it,” Pahl told me. “They act as cheerleaders to promote the project and are willing to put in the time and the energy to make sure it succeeds.”
Burlingtonians are indeed cheerleaders for their green municipal power—the city’s electric department even receives fan mail. And not only are residents more informed than average about how their power is made, with the solar incentives Vermont has put in place, many of them have begun making it themselves by installing solar panels on their homes. In doing so, they’re part of a larger trend that energy insiders call “distributed power.” That means energy generated on a small scale close to where it will be used. Many see it as the future of power.
This could create a problem for the utility—it will lose rev­enue even as it must implement more complicated metering. But Lunderville, manager of the Burlington Electric Department, isn’t worried. “You can see a day ahead where the grid is less important than it is today, because people have built their own microgrids,” he said. “As a utility, that can worry us, because what are we going to do with all these poles and wires? Or we can embrace it as a way to work more closely with our customers. We see it as the latter here.”
It’s all a part of electricity, like food, becoming something you make informed choices about. “People are now buying their power based on their value systems,” Nolan, the city’s manager of power resources, explained. “It’s not just ‘turn the light switch on’ anymore. Here, everyone has an opinion on what we should buy and what it should cost. It’s happening here, and it’s going to happen elsewhere in the country.”
Ginger Strand is an Orion contributing editor and the author of Killer on the Road. Her most recent feature article for the magazine, “Speed Freaks,” appeared in the ­September/­October 2011 issue.
See an audio slide show about Burlington’s local power grid.