In a recently released report, the Sierra Club highlights 10 cities across the US that have made commitments to be fully powered by clean energy sources. (Note: their definition of clean energy does not include carbon-based energy or nuclear energy.) Out of the 10 cities described, 4 have already met their 100% clean energy goal.
So how’d they do it?
No two paths to 100% renewable energy are the same, but there are some common factors that have helped these cities make and meet their goals. Here’s our take on the Sierra Club’s 10 case studies.
The reasons for going clean vary across states, but many of the motivators can be grouped into similar categories.
For several states examined in the Sierra Club’s report, switching to clean energy made economic sense. Climate change has a direct negative impact on states whose natural environments are major economic drivers. Burlington, VT, for example, is known for its production of maple syrup and is also a popular skiing destination. Powering the city with clean energy was considered a long-term investment in the health of its economy and the environment, which are inextricably linked. Burlington successfully met its 100% renewable energy goal in 2014. Aspen, CO is another ski town that had much to benefit from clean power. Aspen met its renewables goal in 2015.
State initiatives are another driver of 100% clean energy goals. East Hampton was in part motivated to help achieve the 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions goal defined in a New York State Executive order.
Minnesota has the same goal of reducing 80% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Rochester, MN is hoping this initiative will provide a boost to their 100% clean energy goal by 2031. So far, the conditions look promising: in 2015, the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Authority (SMMPA) retired the Silver Lake coal plant. The Rochester Public Utility has since decided not to renew its contract with SMMPA in 2030, making the ability to add clean energy alternatives even easier.
Of course, many cities recognize the environmental benefits of switching to 100% clean power and view it as an important responsibility to make their communities more sustainable. After nearly being wiped out by a 2007 tornado, the small town of Greensburg, KS wanted to rebuild by taking their name to heart. They’re dedicated to building a community that will be around for future generations through LEED certified buildings and energy efficient strategies.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that 6 of the 10 cities in the Sierra Club’s report are in California. The state is well known for being one of the most progressive in the country and continues to be a steady adopter of solar technologies. Environmental responsibility even received bipartisan support from San Diego’s city council—so much so that they made their 100% clean power goal legally binding.
The 10 cities in the Sierra Club’s case studies report all use different strategies to reach the 100% renewable mark. What works best takes into account each city’s energy consumption, potential for new local clean energy sources, nearby clean power sources, and state policies among other factors.
The renewable energy portfolios of the 10 cities are largely diversified. Many cities combine wind and solar power as their primary energy sources, but some also utilize hydropower and biomass. When locally sourcing all of the clean energy was not an option, nearby states offered a solution. Aspen, CO was able to meet the rest of its 100% clean energy goal by purchasing wind power from Nebraska and South Dakota.
Some of the cities that use solar as part of their clean energy portfolio benefit from Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). PPAs, which are agreements between a solar project developer and a customer, are able to make the most of available solar tax credits and offer little to no upfront costs.
Several cities are utilizing Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) to meet their renewable energy goals. With CCA, the city essentially becomes a utility by purchasing power directly from producers and controlling the supply for its customers. San Francisco, CA’s CleanPowerSF (a CCA) will allow customers to choose between a 35% renewable energy blend, 100% renewable blend, or stay with PG&E.
Of course, reaching 100% is much easier for cities who consume less energy. That’s why many cities—especially larger ones–incorporated energy consumption reduction as part of their goals. The size of a city is not as big a hindrance to being fully powered by clean sources as consumption is, though larger cities do tend to use more energy. That does not mean they are not capable of going 100% clean. Meeting this goal requires favorable sustainability policies and initiatives, as well as a city-wide commitment to reducing energy consumption at both the individual and corporate level.
These clean power leaders (you can track their progress on the Sierra Club’s website) certainly make the potential for 100% renewable energy across the country seem promising. There’s even an interactive visual resource from The Solutions Project that shows what types of clean energy sources all 50 states could adopt to make a 100% national goal a reality. So why hasn’t it caught on in more cities?
Some cities, particularly in the Midwest, are not jumping to switch to clean alternatives because they are geographically close to sources of cheap energy like coal. And when budgets are tight, finding the upfront capital to invest in clean energy can be a challenge for many cities and towns. Some of these cities, like our hometown of Cincinnati, have chosen to focus sustainability efforts on the creation of new eco-friendly buildings rather than adding solar or other renewable sources to power existing structures.
Despite significant evidence on the contrary, some politicians and leaders still do not recognize climate change as one of the most urgent issues of our time. Those who do see the need to act are often met with barriers to initiating a sustainability plan. Other government members may be more focused on different issues or may not see the benefits of renewables. There may be outdated policies and contracts in place that are preventing the adoption of new clean power initiatives.
One of the biggest challenges with a global problem like climate change is the difficulty of explaining it on a local scale. And with many competing priorities, government leaders are asking questions like: How do melting ice caps affect me here in the Midwest? Gaining political support will in part require sustainability advocates to show how global climate issues impact their local economies and way of life.
The cost of renewable energy is at a historic low. Clean energy sectors like solar are adding jobs faster than the majority of other industries. Despite these favorable conditions, some city officials do not identify the economic benefits of clean power. Making the switch to renewables can strengthen local economies by creating jobs for local workers, reduce or eliminate reliance on non-local energy sources, and provide savings to local businesses and residents.
If we’ve seen anything from the Sierra Club’s case studies, it’s that any city can hypothetically make the transition to clean energy, no matter how populous. Cities of all sizes, from a few thousand to a few million, have successfully adopted plans to go 100% renewable.
Expanding this list of sustainable cities will require a localized effort to educate city decision makers on how not making the switch can negatively affect local businesses, individuals, and the general health of the community. We need to show how clean power creates economic value at the local level and can even protect the future of our local economies as it did in Burlington, VT and Aspen, CO. But most importantly, communities must advocate for this change. Local governments are more inclined to set the wheels in motion for sustainable initiatives when their communities are vocal about the changes they want to see.