In 2014, Burlington, Vermont, the birthplace of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Senator Bernie Sanders’ playground, announced that she had reached an energy milestone. The city of 42,000 inhabitants, which runs along the shore of Lake Champlain, has produced enough electricity from renewable sources to cover all of its electricity needs. Burlington, the city government proclaimed, was one of America’s first “renewable cities”.
Burlington has since been joined by Georgetown, Texas, Aspen, Coloradoand a few other small towns across the country. And while some cities have a head start – Burlington enjoys a huge amount of hydroelectric power and enough wood for biomass combustion – many of them that depend on fossil fuels for electricity are growing. join them. more than 170 towns and villages across the United States have pledged to shift their power supply from coal and natural gas to solar, wind and hydro. Saint Louis, which currently gets only 11% of its electricity from renewables, says it will run solely on renewables by 2035; coal dependent Denver promised to do the same by 2030.
“Cities are setting these goals and striving to go from a very small percentage of renewables to 100% within an extremely ambitious time frame,” said Lacey Shaver, city’s renewable energy manager at the World Resources Institute, by E-mail. “It is an exciting time for the city’s energy work.”
But are 100% renewable cities really… 100% renewable? The reality is a bit complicated – and it shows the challenges of true “deep” decarbonization of electricity in the United States.
First, switching to clean electricity doesn’t mean a city cancels its carbon footprint – residents could still drive gas-guzzling cars or heat their homes with natural gas. Even most claims of running on “clean” electricity come with caveats: what cities actually mean is that they are buying enough electricity from wind, solar or other sources. to balance the energy they use throughout the year. For places full of renewables, like Vermont, it’s not that big of a deal. But in other areas, a city may not use all of the renewable electricity in real time. Even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, electrons still have to flow through the grid to keep the lights on. And right now, much of that more cohesive energy comes from non-renewable sources, primarily natural gas and coal.
“There really isn’t any city that functions as an island in electricity,” said Joshua Rhodes, associate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “You are going to be connected to a larger network.” “Fossil fuel electrons” and “renewable electrons” don’t exist – all energy mixes once it hits the grid. This means that even a 100% renewable city could, from time to time, source electricity from fossil fuels. For this reason, Rhodes says the goals of running solely on renewable energy sound more like accounting mechanisms than a pure description of a city’s energy sources.
At the moment, that’s not a big deal: most cities still have a long way to go to get to this point. The American electricity grid is still finished 60 percent powered by fossil fuels, and most cities get only about 15% of their electricity from renewables. When city governments buy renewable energy – even if they are still connected to the larger grid – they increase the demand for wind and solar installations. But in the long run, experts say this strategy will not completely eliminate the country from fossil fuels.