Inside Oakland’s clean energy economy strategy

Inside Oakland’s clean energy economy strategy

oakland downtown
Shutterstock E Fehrenbacher
Downtown Oakland, California.

American cities face a variety of challenges, with broad social needs such as affordable housing, urban blight, structural budget deficits and crumbling infrastructure dominating the political conversation. While climate change tends to arise in governance circles, it typically does so as a stand-alone topic. Rarely are climate solutions raised or seriously considered as the basis for strategies to address broad social issues.

This is perhaps the most important indicator of how governments have failed to realize the potential of climate solutions to impact social priorities. And the inverse of that statement is the frame through which cities across the United States and beyond can begin to rethink their approach to managing and preserving infrastructure and services.

In my city of Oakland, California, climate change policies and programs are a core approach to creating jobs, raising wages, addressing historical inequities for women and minorities, improving the health of residents and improving the quality of life for all. In the battle for the soul of a nation, cities such as Oakland are showing that the clean energy economy is America’s best strategy for creating a prosperous and better tomorrow.

Restoring prosperity under such conditions will be a generational challenge, but offers enormous potential. The best place to start is the clean energy economy. Multiple federal, state, non-profit and research organizations have documented the impact that the transition to low carbon energy has had on jobs creation, health and lowering costs of energy.

At the local level, states and cities are passing regulations, creating partnerships and advancing new ideas that are bringing this vision closer to reality. One example is the longstanding dependence of cities on natural gas. The popular opinion of natural gas remains consistent with how it was marketed in the 1990s — a cheap, clean, reliable "bridge" away from coal-based electricity. This antiquated notion bears little resemblance to modern science and data.

Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas exceed those of coal in the United States and have since 2015. Natural gas is not only a dirtier fuel than electricity in many parts of the country, it also creates fire risk in homes, can create massive community safety and health risks (PDF) from its transmission and storage and often requires fracking and other dangerous and polluting practices to extract. Perhaps its most troublesome aspect is its impact on the health of people who use it.

Studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (PDF), the National Institutes of Health, California Energy Commission (PDF) and Johns Hopkins University (PDF) have documented unhealthy levels of nitrous oxides (NOx) in homes with gas cooktops, particularly noting the disproportionately negative impact on inner-city African American children. In short, natural gas systems are responsible for driving up GHG emissions, increasing fire risk for buildings, creating community hazards and sickening residents, particularly children. Yet cities continue to allow, or in many cases require, natural gas infrastructure to be constructed in homes and businesses.

Oakland and other cities in California are working to end this dependence on natural gas in new construction. Cities, product manufacturers, regulators and utilities in California have been working together under the Building Decarbonization Coalition to end the use of natural gas in buildings. This coalition and its members have demonstrated the availability of electric technologies to replace gas systems in all building types, shown that all-electric new construction is cheaper to build and operate than buildings with gas, and helped educate builders and contractors to show how modern electric systems such as heat pumps and induction cooking deliver better cooking and heating for homes and businesses than their gas-based alternatives.

None of those statements would have been true even five years ago, but the rapid change in technologies fundamentally have changed the way cities can think about their buildings. More than 50 cities in California are expected to bring forth limitations or complete elimination of natural gas systems in newly constructed buildings by early 2020.

By taking this action, Oakland and others are priming the market for clean electric technologies that will further lower costs and spur market investment. Newly constructed buildings will be cleaner, safer, easier to maintain over time and more resilient to a changing climate, all while reducing GHG emissions. The reduction in costs for technologies, along with the training of contractors and builders, will allow cities to better and more effectively focus on retrofitting the existing building stock in the years to come.

This approach likely will take 20 to 30 years to fully reach all buildings, but will result in lower utility bills, reduced fire risk, improved indoor air quality and more comfortable buildings. By focusing on climate-ready solutions, Oakland and its fellow cities will positively affect broad strategies on affordable housing development, reducing liability for gas infrastructure, adapting to climate change and building local jobs in the clean energy economy.

Beyond natural gas, opportunities rapidly are being created in clean transportation, the circular economy, carbon sequestration and the digital revolution. In 2018, Oakland became the first city in North America to fully model the costs and impacts of these potential actions at the city scale, creating a landmark report that demonstrates the city can reach hugely ambitious climate goals in ways that build the local economy, reduce long-term costs and liabilities, improve equitable outcomes and help tackle broad social needs.

Oakland is tackling these challenges on multiple fronts, and working with its partners in government, industry and the community to lead the transition to a cleaner, greener and healthier future. Among the additional strategies underway:

  • A Capital Improvements Program that scores infrastructure investments on sustainability and equity as well as pavement condition and replacement cost;
  • Establishment of a community choice energy program that delivers 85 percent carbon-free electricity to all customers at a lower cost than the previous investor-owned utility;
  • Electric vehicle infrastructure requirements for all new multifamily and commercial developments; and
  • Use of a community-based Equity Facilitator to direct public engagement and outreach activities for the creation of a 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan.

The time is here for cities to begin truly realizing the potential of climate solutions to change the urban fabric in ways that benefit all people in our communities, particularly those that have been disadvantaged by the ways in which our cities originally were developed. In this way, we can demonstrate a style of leadership that advances our policy and social needs to achieve the equitable low carbon cities our world truly needs.

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