What Good are City Clean-Energy Targets?

In the absence of federal action, the US has seen a groundswell of local efforts and leadership in the fight against climate change. In addition to various states and corporations, many cities in the US have committed to power their own operations with renewable energy. In fact, 132 US cities and counties have gone even further and set 100 percent clean energy goals for their communities. While these goals are commendable, recent media articles covering this trend have raised several important questions, such as:

  • Does setting a clean energy goal with a far-off deadline achieve anything meaningful today?
  • How can cities achieve these goals, particularly municipalities that cannot control their electricity supply?
  • What impact can cities have on addressing a global challenge?

Or, put another way, what good are city clean-energy targets? To answer this broader question, let’s tackle each of the specific questions above in turn.

Setting a Future Target Can Inspire, Build Consensus, and Spur Action Today

Cities often commit to meeting their goals ten or more years into the future. Ambitious, long-term targets not only provide an inspiring vision for a community but also motivate action today. Specifically, setting a target allows cities to (1) collaborate with their community to develop a plan which meets citizens’ needs and (2) accelerate clean energy projects in the near term.

Collaborating with Communities to Develop Plans: Renewable energy enjoys broad bipartisan support in the US, yet many communities still struggle to prioritize renewable energy over more immediate concerns. The process of establishing a renewable energy target provides city governments with a high-visibility opportunity to engage their community, identify key issues and priorities, and generate excitement and support for a plan. As a result, city sustainability plans are evolving to encompass additional community priorities. For example, New York City’s Green New Deal includes climate action measures and also identifies priorities in areas such as public transit, health, and social equity while emphasizing the importance of “expanded partnerships with community groups” to its success. Similarly, the City of Los Angeles’s Green New Deal outlines how the city’s renewable energy efforts will create local jobs and, more broadly, promote equity in the city.

Accelerating Clean Energy Projects in the Near Term: Enacting a renewable energy target helps city staff to muster internal resources to complete renewable energy projects. To complete any project, champions within city government have to approach staff from various departments (e.g., legal, finance, and general services) and convince them to take on additional responsibilities. All cities struggle with a lack of internal staff capacity, so these conversations can be challenging even if the individuals involved support the project in principle. Establishing a clean energy goal simplifies these internal conversations. Setting a goal communicates that renewable energy is a city priority and changes the focus of internal conversations from “should the city buy clean energy?” to “how can the city best meet its goal?” As we’ll discuss later on, this mobilization of resources and effort is critical even if the pathway to achieve the goal is not yet clear, since without a commitment no one would start trying to find or create solutions.

Targets Send Powerful Signals

Cities in certain utility regulatory environments, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are able to immediately act on ambitious targets by purchasing large amounts of renewable energy on the open market. However, other cities located in states served by integrated monopoly utilities lack the ability to make these large purchases themselves and must work with their utility. If the utility does not already offer viable solutions such as a green tariff, cities can set targets to signal their intentions to their utility and/or state-level decision makers and accelerate the creation of new pathways to purchase renewable energy.

Signaling the Utility: Increasingly, cities with clean energy targets have been able to form productive partnerships with their utilities. In 2016, Salt Lake City and Park City set 100 percent clean energy commitments. After a three-year collaboration, these two cities, Summit County, and Rocky Mountain Power announced a groundbreaking new program through which the cities will be able to power their entire communities with net-100 percent renewable electricity. Similarly, Kansas City drafted a series of ambitious targets in 2017 and then, one year later, announced that its utility would support these targets. More recently, after seeing a number of cities set clean energy targets in North Carolina, Duke Energy worked with RMI to convene key stakeholders to explore how the group could help cities move beyond resolutions to implementation. (Note: Cities considering renewable energy commitments may want to reach out to their utility before announcing a goal and establish a collaborative partnership early in the process.)

Signaling Regulators and Legislators: Some utilities may prove less willing to work with cities; in these cases, setting a target sends an important signal to other cities, legislators, utilities commissioners, and state representatives. As more and more cities set targets, they will be increasingly able to influence their state’s direction by intervening in regulatory hearings (as Ann Arbor has done), sending letters to regulatory staff (like the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, did), or urging state lawmakers to create new pathways (as large companies such as Microsoft, Walmart, Best Buy, Ikea, Staples, and Mars Inc. have done). These interventions can have a large impact. In Georgia Power’s latest planning process with state regulators, intervenors helped increase the utility’s planned renewable energy procurement from 1,000 MW to 2,260 MW. And if all else fails, cities may choose to take control of their electricity supply by allowing community choice aggregation (as San Diego has done) or even forming a municipal utility (as Chicago, San Francisco, and Boulder, Colorado, are contemplating).

City Targets are Meaningful

Cities are already poised to make a substantial impact both directly and by scaling renewable energy adoption within their communities.

Direct Impact: Cities use a lot of energy and, as a consequence, have the potential to drive a significant amount of renewable energy development. Using data from the Department of Energy, our team estimated that the 132 US cities that have signed onto Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 use more electricity than the entire country of Egypt! Meanwhile, more and more cities across the globe are making similar renewable energy commitments.

Scaling Potential: Cities are ideally positioned to scale renewable energy adoption within their communities. Cities which run their own utilities, such as Austin, Texas, can directly provide renewable energy to their customers; Austin is on track to be over 50 percent renewably powered by 2020. Meanwhile, other cities are working with their communities to accelerate renewable energy adoption. The City of Boston set up a Green Ribbon Commission to convene local leaders to support the city’s action plan; this group then helped MIT and other local organizations sign a 60 MW solar deal. Taking another approach, the City of Chicago created a Renewable Energy Challenge Program to encourage local businesses to follow the city’s example and set their own renewable energy target.

Cities Can Make a Difference Today

Big transitions are challenging, and cities will sometimes have to fight uphill to achieve their goals. Of course, federal legislation could dramatically simplify and accelerate this transition by enabling competition, pricing carbon, and supporting basic research, but that doesn’t mean that local communities have to wait.

Clearly articulated city renewable energy goals enable local action today, provide an important signal to utilities and state decision makers to drive change, and, collectively, are propelling our country toward a more prosperous, secure, low-carbon future. Large cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta are preparing to drive sweeping changes in their communities. Meanwhile, smaller cities like Bennington, Vermont, and Greensburg, Kansas, have already achieved 100 percent clean energy, highlighting the potential our local communities have to make good on these commitments. Looking forward, as more cities adopt the strategies of these trail blazers or develop their own, achieving renewable energy targets will become easier, faster, and cheaper—driving yet more adoption.

For these cities and more, this process wouldn’t have even begun without a few, pioneering cities taking a risk and setting a goal. To learn how your city can create a renewable energy plan, work with your utility, or add more clean power to your community, visit www.cityrenewables.org.