What Will It Take For America To Go 100 Percent Renewable?

Cross-posted from Think Progress

In 2013, Greensburg, KS — a town of less than 800 residents about 100 miles from Wichita — became the first city in the United States to go 100 percent renewable, powering their homes, businesses, and municipal buildings via wind power. In 2014, Burlington, VT joined Greensburg, becoming the largest city in the United States to be powered by renewable energy sources. A year later, Aspen, CO, joined the coalition, becoming the third city in the United States to go 100 percent renewable.

It took just three years for three U.S. cities to make the transition to 100 percent clean energy — and experts in the field of renewable energy, as well as several prominent environmental groups, expect that pace only to quicken in the coming years. Just last month, San Diego — the country’s eighth-largest city — made a legally binding commitment to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. In total, 12 U.S. cities — including San Francisco, CA, Georgetown, TX, and Ithaca, NY — have made commitments to transition to 100 percent clean energy, though many have yet to solidify those commitments as law.

Clean energy is cheap now, there is more political support than there ever has been, and we’re seeing a huge amount of momentum to transition away from coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power.  “There are a lot of cities right now that are setting goals or talking about setting goals,” Joyce McLaren, a senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told ThinkProgress. “There is a murmur in the air about this at city and county levels.”

McLaren knows first-hand what it takes for a city to switch over to 100 percent renewable energy, having worked with the city of Aspen to make the transition earlier this year. One of the barriers, she said, is simply understanding that the switch is possible — something that, with three 100 percent clean energy cities now on the map — is becoming less and less of an issue.

“Aspen was very excited about being an example to others and showing that there are challenges to overcome, but it’s possible,” McLaren said. “The idea that, ‘Yes we can do it, it is possible,’ is growing.”

Hoping to push more cities toward this renewable energy transition, several environmental groups are launching campaigns this year aimed at garnering commitments from cities and institutions like universities and corporations. The Sierra Club — one of the country’s largest grassroots environmental organizations — just launched a new #ReadyFor100 campaign, a nationwide effort aimed at getting 100 cities and 100 organizations to commit to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy.

Coming on the heels of successful campaigns to stop the construction of new coal plants and hasten the retirement of aging ones, the new campaign looks to complete the transition away from fossil fuels and toward an energy infrastructure built on renewables. The Sierra Club hopes that through grassroots organizing, the campaign will be able to secure legally binding commitments from 100 cities by 2018, with the goal of implementing those commitments by 2035.

“Clean energy is cheap now, there is more political support than there ever has been, and we’re seeing a huge amount of momentum to transition away from coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress.

Launched today in San Francisco, the campaign will move next to Cleveland, OH, Alexandria, VA, and St. Augustine, FL, and then on to other cities around the country where the Sierra Club has a strong presence. The campaign will also push for universities, like Ohio State, Michigan State, and the University of California system, to commit to transitioning to 100 percent clean energy.

“It’s hard to argue that Congress is moving quickly on climate change right now,” Brune said. “At the same time, we are making a huge amount of progress on climate change, and part of that is coming from local campaigns at the ground.”

Rob Sargent, with Environment America, reiterated that cities and municipalities are able to enact policies like transitioning to 100 percent clean energy more easily than federal entities. Sargent oversees the Energy Program at Environment America, which is placing particular focus this year on ramping up renewable campaigns across the country.

“In general, cities have always driven sustainability,” Sargent said. “People see firsthand that solar panels are being put on local schools and businesses, so they can picture it and see that the economic benefit is real.”

But even if cities pledge to make the transition, there are still a number of barriers to overcome before 100 percent renewable energy can become a widespread reality. While the price of renewables has been falling in recent years — with solar dropping 70 percent since 2009 and wind becoming cost-competitive with natural gas — there are still technological barriers to overcome, especially in the area of energy storage.

Unless you own a coal mine or an oil well, the smart move is to cast your lot with clean renewable energy.  Despite undergoing record-breaking growth in the past few years, solar’s ability to be deployed on a massive scale is hindered by the fact that solar only works when the sun is shining, which doesn’t happen all the time. Both the government and private sector are funneling millions in investments into making electrical storage — technology that would allow utilities to store solar power and release it into the grid based on demand — more cost-competitive, but currently storage remains cost-prohibitive for many utilities. Places that can tap into baseload resources like hydropower or geothermal power — energy sources that are easier to control with regard to demand — might have an easier time transitioning to 100 percent renewable than places that would need to depend solely on sources like wind, or solar.

“If you don’t have a lot of [geothermal and hydropower] already, you’re going to have to find a way to balance your load with how much generation you have,” McLaren said. “What renewables do you have or are you going to import renewables, and are those renewables producing power at the time that you need them?”

Politically, McLaren said, it’s also important to have buy-in and strong support from decision makers, which means that typically it’s easier to get legally binding commitments in communities that prioritize things like environmental stewardship and clean energy.

“If the public doesn’t think it’s important, it’ll be challenging,” McLaren said.

San Diego, however, appears to be a slight exception to this rule — although the City Council is controlled by Democrats, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is a Republican. According to the New York Times, Faulconer appealed to conservative businesses by selling the plan as an economy boost that would create jobs and transform the electric grid.

The numbers support the economic argument for transforming a city’s energy infrastructure — over the last year, the solar industry added jobs twelve times faster than the rest of the economy. Many experts and elected officials also view the Paris climate agreement reached last December as sending a clear signal to global markets that the world will be moving towards renewable energy.

“Unless you own a coal mine or an oil well, the smart move is to cast your lot with clean renewable energy,” Sargent said. “It just makes sense.”