September 15, 2014

100% Renewable Cities

Three U.S. cities—Burlington, VT, Greensburg, KS, and Beaverton, OR— are proving that the transition to a 100% renewable power grid is achievable in the near term. 

Three U.S. cities—Burlington, VT, Greensburg, KS, and Beaverton, OR— are proving that the transition to a 100% renewable power grid is achievable in the near term.

Burlington, Vermont recently announced that it is now able to generate or purchase renewable energy to meet all of its energy demand. The city will obtain roughly one third of its energy from a large biomass facility, one third from wind energy contracts, and the final third from a newly purchased hydroelectric facility. Moreover, the Burlington Electric Department maintains that the transition to a fully renewable power grid will not cause any rate increases, but instead will lead to cost savings over the long term.

Greensburg, Kansas is moving toward its goal of a 100% green power grid as part of its recovery from a disastrous tornado in 2007: “The wind that destroyed Greensburg is also the wind that would make us energy sustainable,” noted Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson. To achieve that goal, the city contracted with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to create a Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan, which focused both on energy efficiency and development of new wind energy facilities. Although the city’s transition is not yet complete, new homes in Greensburg are on average 45% more efficient than before the tornado, and the town now owns its own wind farm. And because of its wind energy, the town has seen no electricity rate increases in six years, according to Mayor Dixson.  

Finally, Beaverton, Oregon announced this year that it would purchase sufficient renewable energy offsets to meet all its power needs. For all city activities, including running public buildings, streetlights, and the water supply, Beaverton purchases credits for renewable energy from Portland General Electric (PGE). Of course, these purchases do not mean that the city actually consumes only renewable energy. In the words of Cindy Dolezel, the manager of Beaverton’s Sustainability Division: “This does not mean the actual electrons from a wind turbine are going directly into city facilities. It means that our commitment and financial support is making the electrons available to the electricity grid in an amount equivalent to the electricity we use for the city’s operational needs.” Nonetheless, these purchases led to Beaverton being among the only cities to receive PGE’s Platinum Clean Wind Award, and the city deserves recognition for its remarkable investment in renewable energy.

These progress these cities have made is remarkable and praiseworthy, but also raises important questions about what it means to make the transition to 100% renewable power. Burlington obtains a third of its ostensibly renewable energy from a large biomass facility, but critics contend that biomass is not really a clean form of energy and in fact emits more CO2 per MWh than coal. Meanwhile, Beaverton purchases clean energy credits but does not necessarily receive renewable energy as a result. Critics of such arrangements note that “[i]t isn’t reasonable to say that purchasing a [credit] is equivalent to not polluting.” On the other hand, renewable energy credits also have significant benefits, including giving monetary value to the environmental virtues of clean energy and allowing economically efficient investment in renewable facilities. Of course, a full analysis of the merits of biomass energy or renewable energy credits is beyond the scope of this blog post; this post merely notes that when one delves beyond headlines, interesting questions about the nature and merits of different renewable energy strategies emerge. 

Greensburg’s progress raises perhaps the most interesting question of all: What is the best driver for transition to renewable energy? Greensburg began to pivot toward renewable energy after a cataclysmic tornado that nearly obliterated the city. And although those tornadoes are not likely directly linked to climate change, the changing climate poses another cataclysmic threat on a much larger scale. We should not wait for climate change to become a catastrophe before we transition to a renewable energy grid. Rather than reacting to disasters, governments at all levels should favor renewable energy for entirely pragmatic reasons. For example, Burlington and Greensburg demonstrate that renewable energy can reduce energy bills. And as the costs of renewables continue to plunge, the economic case for a transition to a renewable energy grid only becomes more robust. The World Future Council recently issued a report describing what policy makers can do to attain a 100% renewable energy future. Burlington, Vermont, Greensburg Kansas, and Beaverton, Oregon are blazing a trail toward a renewable energy future. Communities across the nation and around the world should take action too.