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Cities aspiring to 100-percent renewables share this in common

There's no single motivation behind the movement. Here's background, with three ideas for where your city can start.

The mission is ambitious, the motivations are myriad and the methods are many. What's more, the progress is notoriously difficult to measure.

But that hasn't discouraged dozens of cities, towns (and even islands) across the United States from declaring their intention to go "100 percent renewable" with their electricity purchases — with more than 100 more lined up to make similar pledges. San Diego, the biggest U.S. metropolis chasing this vision publicly, even has made the transition pretty much mandatory with an aggressive, legally binding Climate Action Plan that requires it to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2035. It needs clean power alternatives to cut an estimated 1.6 million metric tons out of its 13 million metric-ton total.

"We are starting to see so much momentum, to the point where we can't keep up with all the commitments," noted Diane Moss, founding director of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, which assists municipalities, regions and other stakeholders with mapping the blueprints for these journeys.

Part of that is certainly the Trump effect: there were many proclamations in the aftermath of the president's decision to yank the United States out of the Paris agreement as soon as it's legally feasible. But many communities inching toward an all-in-on-renewables nirvana made those commitments months or even years ago, tempted by favorable economics for solar and wind power, and the lure of new local business development opportunities. How far they've advanced isn't entirely clear, in part because some plans are still light on details. Even in places where work has begun in earnest, such as San Francisco, detailed data about progress is scarce five years after the initial strategy was publicized.

Some of the top things these cities have in common is the legal right to procure their own energy.
"It's an important North Star, and it is something to which not just cities but also states and, in a better world, the federal government, would aspire to," said Sam Brooks, a former director for the energy division in Washington, D.C., and now managing director of clean-energy consulting firm ClearRock. "To set the broad macro alignment, 100 percent renewables makes sense, although I question whether it's really impactful in terms of setting city policy."

All shapes and sizes

Exactly how many U.S. cities actually have declared their intention to take on this goal is also a matter for debate. As of late August, close to 40 were listed as "committed" as part the ReadyFor100 campaign orchestrated by Sierra Club, although dozens more towns, villages and metropolitan mammoths claim they are committed to committing. Many pledges point to a 2030-ish timeframe.

Some names are familiar, such as Greensburg, Kansas, the tiny town destroyed by a tornado that decided (somewhat ironically) to harness renewable wind energy for all of its power needs when it rebuilt. Alongside Greensburg, four other cities have declared success against their 100 percent goal: Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Kodiak Island, Alaska; and Rock Port, Missouri (another all-wind town, like Greensburg).

There are also names on the list that have become unlikely poster children for the 100 percent renewables push. Georgetown, Texas, which had an estimated population of 67,140 as of July 2016, splits its energy purchases between nearby wind and solar farms and balance. Abita Springs, a resort town of about 2,500 people in Louisiana known for its medicinal springs, wants to wean itself off oil by 2030.

[Learn more about cities going 100 percent renewable at VERGE 17, Sept. 19-21 in Santa Clara, California.]

Both currently have Republican mayors, and the decisions were rooted firmly in economic policy. "When Georgetown Utility Systems opted to seek new sources of power in 2012, we were charged with a mission to secure the most cost-effective energy that balanced risk and reward," noted then-city manager Jim Briggs. "Our team took advantage of a unique time in the market place and did just that. By securing these renewable contracts the utility can consider itself 100 percent 'green,' but it does so at extremely competitive costs for energy, and it hedges against future fuel and regulatory risks, fulfilling our initial goal."

The press release about Georgetown's power purchase agreements hints at an ulterior motive: the opportunity for companies that locate their operations there to reach sustainable energy goals at a "competitive price."

The motivation for Albita Springs is very similar. "In a state dominated by oil interests, Abita Springs is a unique community that can be a leader on the path to renewable energy," said LeAnn Pinniger Magree, chair of the Abita committee for Energy Sustainability, when the goal was announced in March. "Our town already boasts the solar-powered Abita Brewery, and we can see first-hand how clean energy benefits our businesses and our entire community. By transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, we will save money on our utility bills, and protect our legendary water and clean air in the process."

The goal's the thing

One factor that made Georgetown's ambition more achievable was that the city exercises local control over its power choices, Moss said. "Some of the top things these cities have in common is the legal right to procure their own energy," she said. "And they have strong leadership at both the top level and the grassroots level."

That resolve also must be long-lived, given the multi-decade, multi-administration nature of these strategies. While it's simple to rally a community around fighting crime, for example, it's far more difficult to be a cheerleader for the cause of something such as citywide energy efficiency in public and private buildings, Brooks said.

"The problem isn't always so obvious, it's long-term and nebulous, and that's what is unique and difficult but also so hard to do," he said. 

That doesn't mean cities shouldn't start acting decisively to address the types of energy they consume, especially on things that they can control. "At some point, there needs to be hard political pressure that swarms the apparatus," Brooks said.

Where would that energy best be spent, so to speak? Here are three suggestions from Brooks about where to start:

Get better about measuring energy efficiency: Cutting power consumption has been at the heart of San Francisco's climate action agenda, and not just for the city's own buildings — it has programs in place for commercial and residential structures. The same is true in places such as New York and the nation's capital, where almost 99 percent of the buildings are connected to smart meters.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a city that has deep insight into this data or that reports on it any more frequently than on an annual basis, which is a big oversight in the digital age, Brooks said. "The next step, which is the critical one that is shockingly overlooked, is actually getting the data, having a look at it and actually seeing how you're doing with these various efficiency programs," he said.  

Work on decarbonization across multiple sectors: Right now, many city-set "100 percent" targets are specific to electricity. They don't specifically tackle loads for municipal fleets or for heating buildings in chilly winter months.

Places such as San Diego are addressing both: its 2035 goal includes converting 90 percent of its fleet to zero emissions vehicles. San Francisco is likewise getting more prescriptive about its transportation mission. Starting in January, new residential, commercial and municipal buildings will be required to include electrical infrastructure that is capable of supporting electrical vehicle stations for at least 20 percent of their parking spots — and that can support them all being used simultaneously.

Be more specific about what your commitment means: Most proclamations on the Ready for 100 list do little to explain the "how" of a goal, such as whether a city actually will make an effort to procure renewable electricity that is delivered directly to its citizens or whether it will invest in renewable energy certificates to offset its power purchases.

"You've got to go through the process of setting goals, dealing with the unique challenges of your city, the goal setting is important," Brooks said. "You've got to do that first."

As example is the policy embraced by the 156,000-person desert city of Lancaster, California. Part of its mandate is an ordinance passed in 2013 that requires new "family residential units" built after Jan. 1, 2014, include solar power. The community aspires to be a "net zero power" city by 2020, and it has tied this vision clearly to economic development opportunities.

"You want local jobs? Don't buy RECs, don't buy offsite power; create local forms of generation, create a local energy efficiency workforce," Brooks advised. "Those are local jobs, that's local tax revenue. That's helping citizens of your city; that's helping low-income folks pay their utility bills."

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