Atlanta and other cities pledge 100% renewables by 2035

  • Atlanta City Council has unanimously approved a measure establishing a city-wide goal of transitioning to 100% renewable energy by 2035, becoming the 27th city in the United States to do so, according to the Sierra Club.
  • The resolution directs the Atlanta Office of Sustainability to develop a plan by January 2018 to meet the goal across all city operations by 2025 and community-wide by 2035. A copy of the measure can be found here.
  • In 2016, the state regulators approved Georgia Power’s long-term energy plan, which will add about 1,600 MW of new renewables, mostly solar, by 2021.
  • Atlanta has more than 450,000 residents, making it the biggest Southern city to pursue all green energy. San Diego, Salt Lake City and Chicago have adopted similar proposals, while a half dozen cities have already achieved 100% clean energy.  The city of Atlanta is under a franchise agreement with Georgia Power until 2064.
  • Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall introduced the measure, and he said in a statement “we know that moving to clean energy will create good jobs, clean up our air and water and lower our residents’ utility bills. … We have to set an ambitious goal or we’re never going to get there.”
  • Other cities include multiple jurisdictions in Colorado as well as Burlington, Vt., Greensburg, Ka., Kodiak Island, Alaska., and Rockport, Missouri.

Most recently, Portland, Ore., and its county of Multnomah County pledged to reach 100% renewable energy economywide by 2050 — including the transport and industrial sectors.

Portland became the first city in the U.S. to adopt a carbon reduction strategy in 1993. Per capita, carbon emissions have since dropped 40% and overall emissions are 21% below 1990 levels. Portland’s renewable goals went further in 2009, when they put out their Climate Action Plan with a goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050.

The latest goal has the city planning to turn their city fleet of cars into electric vehicles. The Portland Building, where more than 1,000 city employees work, will be upgraded to meet LEED Gold status and reduce energy use by 20%. The Multnomah County Courthouse and Health Department now under construction will also be LEED Gold-certified and will likely operating with 40% to 50% less energy than similar facilities.

“It’s important that decision makers and everyone in the community recognizes that this is good for climate policy but it also do a lot of good in the community generally,” said Michael Armstrong, the Senior Sustainability Manager for the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, where he manages the city’s climate protection strategy.

Work with residents and businesses are planned, too. Nike, based in Portland, already declared they will go 100% renewable electricity by 2025. A law passed by city council will make home sellers get an home energy scores, so buyers can compare energy performances.

“It is new information in the marketplace, we think is a really powerful incentive,” Armstrong said.

Beyond Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) signed a law last year that increases the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50% by 2040 while also requiring the larger utilities to phase out coal generation imports by 2035.

Armstrong said that some technology costs, like grid upgrades that can handle two-way power flows, will need to come down to help the city get to their goal. Their utility, Portland General Electric have stated they are working with the city and county to increase renewables, but are in the midst of trying to build two new fracked gas plants.

“We do have the technology,” Armstrong said  “It’s a question of investing in clean technology versus dirty technology.”

Renewable cities around the country

Last year, the Sierra Club started the “Ready for 100” campaign to encourage cities to switch to 100% renewable energy sources. More than 25 cities have already made a commitment to up their renewable energy. For Chicago, they’re shooting for supplying city-owned buildings with renewable energy, a goal Las Vegas hit last year. In other cities, like Boulder, San Diego and San Francisco, 100% renewable electricity for the whole city is the goal.

“There is a whole range of different innovations happening,” said Eric Woods, smart cities research director at Navigant Research.

Woods and Navigant uses the term “energy cloud” to describe the whole transformation taking place in the energy sector. A lot of different systems are part of that innovation. Smart grids, big data business models, new types of finances to transport companies are all part of the changes happening.

“Out of that complex interactions we see a new ecosystem,” Woods said. “The ones that are pushing the way in this, like Copenhagen or San Diego, they’re looking at the broad mix.”

The benefits to switching to all renewable energy could be extensive. Beyond energy independence, a study out of Stanford found that the transition to clean energy would save the average American family over $200 a year in energy costs and $1,500 a year in healthcare costs. A study published by the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Climate Corps program found that the solar and wind industries are each creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy.

Even with all the new innovation, different projects are on different time scales. Big cities are going to take time to retrofit and upgrade. Other places don’t have total control to do projects. The United Kingdom has a national grid, which prevents towns and cities from developing their own plans. Problems like this will take time to solve.

“There’s a recognition this all won’t happen tomorrow,” Woods said.

San Diego

San Diego is the largest city — at 1.4 million residents — to make a pledge of 100% renewable electricity. What’s more, the city council in a unanimous vote made their pledge legally-binding, one of the few cities to go that far. Under the ordinance, it has also committed to completing its transition and cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2035.

While theoretically any city could be sued for not meeting stated goals, San Diego decided to go for extra accountability.

“We gave those folks a stronger argument since we made it legally binding,” said Cody Hooven, who leads sustainability planning and policy for San Diego.

The plan goes along with their climate change action plan. The projects include switching city cars to electric vehicles. Less traditional projects are in the works, like looking into harnessing hydropower from dams to capturing methane from trash to power garbage trucks.

“We’re making a good faith effort,” Hooven said. She added that they are doing reports on the city’s progress every year, when most cities do these types of reports every two to three years.

The plan passed with support from San Diego’s Republican mayor and the local Chamber of Commerce, something Hooven said was easy when the benefits were laid out.

“Economic growth and environmental protection didn’t have to be pitted against each other,” Hooven said, reframing a popular talking point from President Trump’s fossil-friendly EPA chief.

The city’s power supplier, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), already uses renewable energy for 33% of the city’s power. But SDG&E said in a statement that they are committed to 50% renewable energy by 2030, which is not quite the 100% by 2035 goal the city has.

There is a way the city could force the issue. In California, a program called community choice aggregation would allow San Diego to purchase power independently of SDG&E, while the utility would still maintain the grid.

That option has been exercised in smaller places in California like Napa County but haven’t been done yet in larger cities like San Diego. Hooven said that there is still time for SDG&E to get on board with the city’s goals, but the utility opposes efforts to move to community choice aggregation.

“We will have to work in partnership with them,” Hooven said.

The first city to go 100%

Burlington, Vermont, home of Bernie Sanders, Ben and Jerry’s and 42,000 other residents, was the first city in the country to go 100% renewable energy.

After deciding to phase out nuclear in the 1990s, the city resolved to go for 100% renewable energy. In 2014, the city reached its 100% target and now runs mostly on a mix of biomass, wind, solar, hydropower and methane. The city can still buy traditional power if the renewable sources aren’t producing enough energy, but the city typically produces enough extra green power that they can sell excess renewable energy credits to companies.

While switching to renewables the city also put in place an energy efficiency program. Burlington now actually uses less energy, about 4% less, now than it did in 1989. By comparison, Vermont’s energy consumption went up 10.5% and the U.S. went up 28% over the same time period.

“Burlington is obviously a vibrant city with strong economic growth, but we have been able to lower demand for energy,” said Darren Springer, Burlington Electric’s Chief Operating Officer.

Burlington Electric bought Winooski One, a hydroelectric facility to get them to the 100% line, a power source controversial with some environmental activists because of the ecological damage that dams can do. Winooski One is a certified low-impact hydro dam, however, a designation that means the project has minimal environmental and social impacts.

“Hydropower can be a baseload-style resource and it helps diversify the mix,” Springer said. While wind and solar only generate power during certain hours, hydropower can provide electricity around the clock.

The Burlington Electric Department is controlled by the city, making working on these shifts easier than in some other communities. Since going 100% renewable, cities around the world have contacted Burlington for insight. Cities like Aspen have since also achieved 100% renewable electricity.

For the Vermont city, reaching their goal just made them want more. Ideas include becoming a net-zero energy city, which means it must generates as much energy as it consumes, and not just electricity, but heat and transportation as well. They are also working on an electric bus to replace diesel ones.

“There’s been a lot of positive interest,” Springer said. “Beyond interest, it inspired some thinking in Burlington into what comes next.”

Meanwhile, in Maryland

In 2016 in Maryland…

  • Maryland regulators approved final regulations to establish a three-year community solar pilot program in the state, stressing that the emphasis will be on bringing the benefits of renewable generation to low and moderate-income customers.
  • The new regulations are expected to be published July 8 and will become final 10 days after. They stem from legislation signed in 2015 by Gov. Larry Hogan.
  • The three-year pilot will allow renters to contract for solar energy, and includes about 60 MW for projects focused on low and moderate income customers out of a state-wide 200 MW cap.
  • Four months after the Maryland Public Service Commission proposed draft guidance for community solar plans, the PSC finalized new rules that will expand renewable energy in the state.

“This pilot program will implement the General Assembly’s desire to increase access to solar electricity for all Maryland ratepayers, especially low and moderate income customers,” PSC Chair W. Kevin Hughes said in a statement. “In addition, it will encourage private investment in Maryland’s solar industry and diversify the state’s energy resource mix,” helping to meet the state’s renewable portfolio standard and emissions reductions goals.

According to the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, 14 states and Washington D.C. have community solar policies, with Maryland becoming the latest to join the group.

The regulations will provide access to solar-generated electricity in a manner “similar to rooftop solar and net metering,” regulators said, but without requiring property ownership. The plan is designed to incentivize solar companies to provide service to low- and moderate-income customers, and to attract new clean energy investment in Maryland.

The state set a cap of 200 MW of the three-year pilot, with 60 MW set aside for low- and moderate-income customers. Regulations also created a separate program capacity for small systems and systems built on brownfields, parking lots or industrial areas, and allows for smaller and rural service territories to make use of existing solar facilities.

The PSC said the new rules include significant consumer protections, and allow commission staff to collect data to study community solar’s impact on Maryland’s grid.

A 2015 report from GTM Research found community solar was expected to grow 59% annually through 2020, hitting installed U.S. capacity of 534 MW.