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Thursday, April 18, 2013

IBM Advises City: "Make Burlington Synonymous With Green Tech"

Posted By on Thu, Apr 18, 2013 at 8:14 PM

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On April 1, the city of Burlington welcomed a team of six international experts from IBM's "Smarter Cities Challenge Initiative." Their goal: Spend three weeks meeting with Burlington stakeholders to figure out how to reduce the city's carbon footprint. Seven Days previewed their arrival in the March 27 story, "IBM Wants to Help Burlington Reduce Its Carbon Footprint — No Strings Attached."

On Thursday night, April 18, after more than 40 meetings with over 150 people, the IBM team reconvened in Contois Auditorium with their findings and recommendations. Their advice was summed up in six words by IBM team member Christian Raetzsch of Prague: "Make Burlington synonymous with green tech." In other words, Raetzsch advised, build off Burlington's unique strengths, culture and infrastructure and use them to create a "new ecosystem" of sustainable, renewable energy.

The IBMers, who hail from Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Brazil and the United States — and whose consulting services over the past two weeks are worth an estimated $400,000 — focused their efforts on five areas: transportation, Burlington's new smart grid metering system, renewable energy, energy efficiency and stormwater lake protection. The team offered up four major recommendations, all of which will be spelled out in greater detail in a written report available within a month. Those recommendations include:

1. Simplifying energy audits. A "quick win" for the city, said Raetzsch, would be to consolidate the various energy assessment audits already in place through Vermont Gas, Burlington Electric Department, Efficiency Vermont and others, and provide that info to the public through a unified campaign. The team suggested enlisting high school or college students "with a passion for energy efficiency" who could be trained on all these programs. They could then go door-to-door in the community, armed with tablets and infrared sensors, and help residents figure out the best efficiency and incentive programs for their particular needs.

2. Making better use of the McNeil Generating Plant. The IBM team focused much of its attention on expanding McNeil's capabilities. They described the biomass facility as a "key cornerstone" of Burlington's renewable energy mix; unlike renewable energy options such as solar and wind, McNeil can serve as a baseload energy source when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing. The team recommended that the city get more clarity on its plans for district heating — i.e., using waste steam from the plant to heat homes, businesses and institutions — and nail down "anchor clients" who could help make it a reality. 

3. Improving public transportation options. Transportation represents 51 percent of Burlington's contribution to global warming gases, and the IBMers suggested using existing and new public infrastructure to promote more e-vehicle travel — involving not just shared electric cars, but also electric bikes. Just as students from the University of Vermont use their smartphones to find out when and where the next UVM shuttle will be relative to their own position, Raetzsch said that all citizens could use their own smartphones to identify the location of the nearest e-bike or e-car. He also said that the city is "uniquely situated" to join forces with an e-vehicle manufacturer and/or software developer to make Burlington a "showcase" for e-vehicle technologies.

4. Using smart grid data to encourage smarter energy use. The city's new smart grid system, which is now 98 percent complete, generates vast amounts of data on electricity consumption. Under the old system, BED collected 20,000 data points per month — essentially, how much energy each customer used during that time period. The new smart meters now aggregate 1.7 million data points per hour. Raetzsch says that all of that new information creates so many "what if" scenarios, allowing BED, and its customers, to visualize and manage their energy usage. For example, during peak energy time in the summer, customers could elect to let the utility shut off nonessential appliances in their homes for short periods of time to help manage the load. Customers would be rewarded for buying into such programs through lower utility bills. The IBMers also recommended consolidating BED's smart meters with other meters in the home, such as gas lines, through simple, cost-effective technologies, to manage the home's total carbon footprint.

While none of the team's recommendations were ingeniously earth-shattering, they were all greeted with a warm reception by the crowd, and were hailed by the mayor as a bold "roadmap for the future."

Whether and to what extent Burlington will heed IBM's advice remains to be seen. But clearly, the team's emphasis on existing strengths and infrastructure came as welcome news to an administration that will find it hard to sell Burlingtonians on any new infrastructure investments anytime soon.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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