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Local Governments Are Stepping Up Grid Decarbonization in 2022

When most people think about critical stakeholders in decarbonizing the electricity system, they often overlook local governments. This, however, is a mistake. Local governments are already a critical player in the United States’ transition to renewables, and their role will only grow in 2022 as they take advantage of emerging strategies and opportunities.

US local governments have already demonstrated an impressive ability to collectively accelerate renewable energy adoption. To date, over 180 communities around the country have committed to 100 percent renewable electricity, and 50 have already achieved this goal.

These local communities, along with others, have enabled over 16 GW of renewable energy capacity since 2015, roughly enough to power 2.6 million homes every year.

Nevertheless, the United States still has a lot of work to do to fully decarbonize its electricity system. In 2020, 60 percent of electricity was still generated by burning fossil fuels. Moreover, electricity demand is expected to grow (potentially by 80 TWh per year through 2050) as businesses, industry, and consumers look to electrify their vehicles, heating sources, stoves, and more. This will further accelerate the need for more clean electricity, and—as more of that electricity comes from intermittent sources like wind and solar—the grid will need new mechanisms to balance supply and demand.

In response to this pressing need and spurred by increases in federal funding opportunities from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, local governments are continuing to work to push the envelope, innovate, and find new ways to help their communities prepare for and accelerate the energy transition. From California to Maryland, Michigan to Florida, here are some of the ways local governments can and should accelerate grid decarbonization in 2022.


Accelerating Local Distributed Energy Resources

In addition to well-established strategies such as running Solarize campaigns, local governments are exploring new, powerful models and tools to directly support, or otherwise enable, more renewable generation within their communities.

  • SolarAPP+: Rooftop solar in the United States is far more expensive than it should be. Higher “soft costs” related to permitting and inspection, sales tax, and overhead are a key reason why US residential solar installations are three times more expensive than those in other countries. To help address this, cities like Stockton, CA, are adopting SolarAPP+, an automated permitting software that can reduce permitting times from over two weeks to minutes, accelerating developer project cycles and paving the way for significant cost savings.
  • Larger Local Installations: Other communities are finding creative means to install larger-scale projects locally. For example, Denver’s City Council recently approved a $26 million investment to install several community solar projects throughout the city. Thirty percent of the generated electricity will go to public schools and low-income households to alleviate their energy burden. Meanwhile, the City of Houston was awarded a Climate Protection Award for its leadership in repurposing an old landfill to host a 50 MW brightfield project, which will soon be the nation’s largest urban solar facility.
  • 100 Percent Local Utilities: The City of Ann Arbor is exploring a novel means of accelerating its renewable energy efforts through a “Sustainable Energy Utility” (SEU). Inspired by programs created in Delaware and the District of Columbia, the SEU would be a publicly owned utility that utilizes local renewables, microgrid infrastructure, and energy efficiency to meet participants’ energy needs.
  • Local Flexibility: As the United States transitions to clean energy, it will become increasingly valuable for communities to be able to flex their demand to when wind and solar generation is plentiful. Local governments can help unlock this opportunity by ensuring that new EV charging stations, heat pumps, and other large sources of electricity demand in their communities are designed to support this flexibility. To start this process, RMI is collaborating with six local governments to model their future energy needs and identify opportunities to enable greater demand-side flexibility, which could reduce their energy costs while also enabling more efficient grid operations.


Enabling Regional Utility-Scale Projects

Local governments and communities are becoming an increasingly important customer for large-scale renewable energy projects. Cities such as Charlotte, Nashville, Philadelphia, and Washington, have signed contracts to power their own operations with large-scale wind and solar facilities. Meanwhile, local governments such as Boston and Cincinnati, as well as hundreds of communities in California, have taken advantage of their authority to act as an energy supplier and signed contracts to provide renewable energy to their communities.

Other local governments are banding together through a process known as aggregation to go to market for large-scale wind and solar projects collectively, thereby increasing their visibility and bargaining power. Although this market is still nascent, procurement efforts by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission can serve as early examples for other groups to follow.

Local governments are even pursuing innovative technologies. The City of Los Angeles is supporting a large-scale green hydrogen facility. The Intermountain Power Project, located in Utah, will use renewable electricity to split water to create hydrogen, which can then be stored and run through a modified natural gas turbine when energy is needed.


Advocating for System-Wide Change

In states around the country, local governments are individually or collectively banding together to advocate for policies and programs that will further accelerate power sector decarbonization.

In 2021, RMI and WRI worked with a group of cities in North Carolina to help them engage with their local utility and, ultimately, submit comments to Duke Energy’s integrated resource plan. In Texas, our teams similarly supported six local governments in their efforts to submit comments to an ongoing state-level proceeding to reform the state’s electricity market. In some regions, such as Colorado and PJM, local governments have formed ongoing groups to use their collective voice to advocate for supportive state and regional policies and utility programs.

Local governments elsewhere should learn from these examples, research how their utility is performing, and similarly advocate to accelerate system-wide grid decarbonization.


Supercharging Local Action in 2022

Local communities are where the energy transition is taking place. They are where solar is being installed, where drivers charge their electric cars, and where new clean tech jobs are being created. Mayors, city councils, and other local officials cannot dictate choices to their communities, but they do have powerful levers that can influence if, and how successfully, their communities reduce emissions, navigate the energy transition, and take advantage of emerging technological and economic opportunities.

This year, local government action is being further enabled by renewed support from the federal government. Adding to an already extensive number of grant opportunities, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains a series of new programs to help communities develop local resources, enhance the resilience of our electric grid, and prepare for a wave of electrification (see our team’s FFOLD tool for more detailed information). With this once-in-a-generation level of investment from the federal government poised to change American infrastructure, local leaders have a critical opportunity in 2022 to take advantage of these emerging opportunities and set their communities up for success.