There are many things that we take for granted, but few are as essential as energy. Living in Burlington, it’s easy to flick on a light switch, turn up the thermostat, or to fill up the tank of a car, without giving it a second thought. But our energy system is linked to everything, and literally connects, and powers, every other city system.
As we set out to try to understand the key dynamics of Burlington’s energy system, the questions kept getting bigger and bigger. Sourcing, transmission, grid-dynamics, cost, externalities, long-range planning… By the end, our minds were buzzing like a transfer station.
What are some of the barriers to having more cities become solely renewably sourced? In other words, if Burlington can do it, why can’t other cities? One big challenge is transmission. For example, with large solar farms it is possible to put enough solar panels in the desert that could power some huge amount of the country, but transporting all this energy to larger population areas is not really viable. Another challenge is integrating renewable sources into the grid. Much of the grids infrastructure is old and is only used to dealing with steady, reliable energy, like that which is produced by fossil fuels. Many sources of renewables are very dependent on weather. Some days, renewables add a huge amount of energy to the grid, and other days they don’t. The old infrastructure has a hard time dealing with this.
Vermont has a plan to have 90% of its energy be renewable energy by 2050. Governor Peter Shumlin and lawmakers at the time proposed this idea. Switching to this clean, renewable energy will create jobs for Vermonters. Heat, electric, transportation, and efficiency will all need to make the move to renewable energy. By 2050, the plan is for Vermont to phase out fossil fuel and nuclear energy for biomass, hydro, solar, and wind energy. I am proud to live in a state that is making strides to help the planet and improve our quality of life.
For me, the most interesting parts of my interviews was learning about the different energy costs in my two houses. In one house, our heating bill ranges from 90$ to 400$ depending on the season, but in the other, we have a fixed plan and pay 100$ per month for the whole year, no matter how much heat we use. Meanwhile, the electric bills were different by $20/month. These price differences makes sense given that the houses are different sizes, but then my Mom told me that this month our electric bill was $174, which is more than double what it usually is. When I asked her what caused the astronomical increase, she explained that the space heaters we have to use because of how old and inefficient our house is use a lot of energy… We’ve thought about getting a wood stove to try and make the house warmer but the cost is prohibitive. Still, we think about energy fairly often just because of how much it costs.
When I looked at the questions about the energy system on our first day, I couldn’t really answer any of them. The fact of the matter is that I had never really found myself thinking about energy. I knew that heat came out of little holes in the wall… I knew that Burlington got a lot of its energy from the Macneil Plant and from the Winooski Damn–but other than that I didn’t know a lot. And I had never really thought about where that heat came from. The price of monthly bills had never crossed my mind before. I did find it very interesting to learn about all of it though, and I am glad that I learned about it earlier than a lot of other people my age.
Through readings and interviews, I learned about my own home’s and city’s energy systems–and the benefits of sustainability are much clearer now… Burlington, of course, has a very unique situation, given that we are a city that runs off of purely sustainable/renewable energy. A few questions I’m left with are: Why the McNeil plant only gives half of its energy to Burlington? What needs to happen so we can stop buying energy from Canada? And what steps are taken to replace the trees that the McNeil plant uses for burning?
From exploring Burlington’s energy future, we transitioned to Burlington’s energy past. After researching the history of the now defunct Moran Plant, the entire BCL student group attended a public forum sponsored by the Community Economic Development Office (CEDO), at Burlington’s City Hall. Students came in with rich context, and understood both the building’s history and its proposed future: “Moran FRAME,” a design that reimagines this industrial site as a public art installation, a legacy to the city’s energy history, and a Waterfront destination. Students engaged in small groups with a variety of residents and stakeholders, and many students presented in front of the 75+ attendees–including the Parks, Arts, and Culture committee of City Council, the Mayor, and CEDO officials.
After the public forum, students were fully prepared for their formal consultancy with CEDO. We were hosted at City Hall by Senior Projects and Policy Specialist, Kirsten Merriman-Shapiro, Assistant Director for Sustainability, Housing and Economic Development, Gillian Nanton, and CEDO Interim Director David E. White. Over the course of 90 minutes, students envisioned a variety of scenarios, grappling with questions such as “What elements of the building’s history are the most important to preserve or highlight?” and “How can the city ensure that it balances the variety of uses–and users–on the site?” The engagement in the room was palpable, and the consultancy felt reciprocally valuable.
I really enjoyed our time spent at City Hall and UVM. It felt much more important than traditional school. I felt like I was more engaged, as we were talking about real things that affect our community. It was also nice to feel like we were really contributing to our community, and our voices were really valued. I think both partners were really interested in our ideas and what we had to say.
I personally enjoyed going to City Hall for the meeting about Moran FRAME, because it is something I would have never gone to otherwise. I also enjoyed having an actual activity, an actual experience for homework. This is something that BCL does that other classes can’t do. I believe meeting our city partners where they work is more engaging and effective than having them come to us–partially for the journey and being outside, as well as having an opportunity to explore different parts of Burlington I was less aware of.
It was a good and enlightening experience for me personally because I learned a lot of stuff about public forum and local government. It was really interesting to engage with local government officials and it felt like I actually had a voice.
Going to City Hall on 1/30 to the meeting about the Moran FRAME project was the first time I had ever been to a city council meeting. The slide show taught me a few new things about the project such as how much certain things would cost. Breaking up into four small groups and answering the questions CEDO prepared was a good way to hear everyone’s ideas and inputs. Meeting with Kirsten felt more personal and it felt like she really cared about what we were saying and questions we were asking.
Going to CEDO was very interesting. We all came up with many great ideas and additions to the moran plant, it was kind of exciting knowing that we could possibly have a say on a whole new attraction to Vermont, something that may become history.
I found the meeting very interesting. Our opinions and ideas were actually being taken seriously. I found it very satisfying to say something or have an idea and to have Kierstin write it down. Maybe one day Ill be able to tell people that something on the Moran Plant was my idea.