Stepping Up on Urban Clean Energy


With cities accounting for 70% of global carbon emissions, and half the world and 80 percent of Americans living in urban environments, cities should play a critical role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The election of Donald Trump and his pro-fossil fuel entourage who are hellbent on undoing President Barack Obama’s climate initiatives, hollowing out the Environmental Protection Agency, removing climate information from the Department of Energy’s website, and potentially abrogating the Paris climate talks, puts a finer point on the need for U.S. cities to step up their climate action games and ensure that the country doesn’t backslide on addressing climate change.

Ideally, they would do more than just hold the line. The urgent need to accelerate climate action in light of alarming warming trends makes it imperative that cities double down on strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What are cities doing currently to reduce climate pollution and what more must they do?

City Climate Action

Cities have made commitments and signed compacts, pledging to achieve various reduction targets. Some have done the carbon math to understand their energy sources and uses, as well as what achieving their stated carbon pollution reduction goals might take in terms of strategies, budget, and political will.

Carbon-neutral cities aims to power all buildings, transportation, and other energy-consuming activities without fossil fuels. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance recognizes that carbon neutrality can’t happen with incremental changes, but requires a major overhaul of energy systems, which the Alliance’s framework for long-term deep decarbonization reflects.

The City of Seattle’s 2011 carbon neutrality study is driving that city’s climate strategies. Seattle starts with a huge advantage given that close to 97 percent of its electricity is carbon emissions free, so tackling transportation emissions is a high priority. Electrifying all possible vehicles, buses, trucks, and equipment is a crucial strategy to reduce the use of oil in transportation and industry, so Seattle’s clean energy head start makes carbon neutrality a viable target to aim at.

100% Clean Movement

In addition to pledging to achieve carbon neutrality in the coming decades, numerous cities around the world are pledging to achieve 100% renewable energy. To date, 12 countries, 66 cities, 62 regions/states, nine utilities, 21 nonprofit/educational/public institutions, totaling more than 256.3 million people, have committed to shifting to 100% renewable energy in at least one of three sectors (electricity, transportation, heating and cooling). Worldwide projects aimed at 100% clean can be viewed here.

The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100% project profiles 10 case studies of U.S. cities that, in addition to ridding their energy supply of carbon emissions, are demonstrating that clean energy is creating local jobs, saving residents money, keeping money in local government funds, and cutting pollution, which in turn will save lives. since air and water pollution from coal and natural gas plants is linked to asthma, neurological damage, heart attacks, and cancer.

Pricing Carbon

Using economics to accurately price the true cost of carbon pollution is a critical climate solution, particularly when the pricing generates revenues that can be put toward a suite of reduction strategies that should accompany any pricing mechanism to achieve equity and maximum greenhouse gas emission reduction. While pricing systems are in place around the world—Canada, Mexico, European Union Emissions Trading System (UE ETS), California, Northeastern United States, to name the major markets—some cities are also in the carbon pricing game.

Tokyo pioneered an urban cap-and-trade system in 2010. In its first year of operations, the city achieved a 13 percent reduction in total carbon dioxide emissions and subsequent reductions have far surpassed the required annual 6 to 8 percent rate. Tokyo invested the money in energy efficiency retrofit projects.

China piloted carbon pricing systems in five cities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Tianjin) and two provinces (Guangdong and Hubei), starting with Shenzhen in 2013 and finishing with Chongqing in June 2014. Testing carbon pricing in areas with varying industrial and development characteristics helped China design a nationwide emissions trading system scheduled to go into effect in 2017.

Collaborating with Utilities

Municipal utilities in Germany have demonstrated that they can be innovative and drive the clean energy revolution, while Minneapolis, MN struck a first-in-the nation agreement with Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, its electric and gas utilities, to support that city’s climate action plan and 2040 Energy Vision. The partnership is led by a joint city/utility board that determines the work plans for getting the city to achieve its ambitious energy goals.

Lancaster, CA’s Republican Mayor R. Rex Parris decided in 2010 that his city should become the solar capital “of the universe.”  To achieve this lofty ambition, the city, located in the Antelope Valley of the western Mojave Desert in Southern California, requires that all new homes are either built with solar panels or reside in a subdivision that generates one kilowatt of solar energy per house.  Lancaster now aims to be one of the first Net Zero Cities in the world.

Up in northern California, Sonoma Clean Power is a locally controlled electricity provider that offers Sonoma County, CA customers the option to purchase power generated by renewable sources at competitive rates through Community Choice Aggregation (CCA).

On the other side of the country in Westchester County, NY, Sustainable Westchester offers a several zero-carbon programs including a CCA program with Westchester Power; Solarize Westchester; an electric vehicle program to take advantage of a New York State grant program for EVs, as well as to position the community to obtain some of the $100 million in the Volkswagen settlement funds; LED street lights initiative; a municipal solar buyers group; and a Complete Streets initiative.

Building Codes, Land Use, and Density

Building codes that require and incentivize deep energy efficiency and encourage concentrating growth serviced by public transit, safe walkways, and bike lanes, as well as affordable housing, are critical climate solutions.  Policies that encourage urban density set the framework for low-carbon communities.

The Institute for Market Transformation’s Building Rating program tracks cities in the United States that are using building energy benchmarking and energy reporting programs to increase appreciation for the value that energy efficiency brings to a building. Twenty-two cities have some kind of public, commercial, and or multifamily buildings benchmark policies, 10 of which have adopted policies that go beyond benchmarking, such as retrocommissioning or auditing. This graphic shows the cities that are encouraging transparency.

Action, but Not Enough

While these examples of cities embracing various no- and low-carbon initiatives are encouraging, they are piecemeal and not scaling to address the urgency of reducing carbon pollution with the speed and adoption rates that the climate crisis requires. Massive acceleration and adoption of these strategies is needed and that is the focus of Clean Energy Transition’s Urban Clean Energy project with national climate and sustainability directors.

Eileen V. Quigley

Founder & Executive Director
Eileen V. Quigley is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute. Eileen spent seven years at Climate Solutions identifying the transition pathways off oil and coal to a low-carbon future in Washington and Oregon. She built and led the New Energy Cities program, which partnered with 22 Northwest cities and counties to reduce carbon emissions. As Director of Strategic Innovations, she oversaw New Energy Cities, as well as Sustainable Advanced Fuels.
Full Bio & Other Posts

Get the latest updates from the Institute directly to your inbox.

Related Posts