Community-Led Innovation Critical for Clean Energy Future

The sluggish US economic recovery has strengthened the resolve of cities and towns seeking to better control expenses, spur local economic development and encourage sustainable living habits through clean energy programs.

One recent example comes from Sebastopol, California, where the town council is considering a proposal that would require solar arrays for new commercial construction.

Culver City, California, already makes solar mandatory for large commercial developments, towns in Hawaii require solar heating for new homes and other examples of renewables-friendly development are cropping up all over the country. 

Which towns and cities are leading on this?

Two new places to look for inspiration come from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Community Challenge, a national competition among communities to take  aggressive steps to adopt renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The winners of the latest Challenge are Oak Park, Illinois, which sources 92% of its energy from clean sources including solar, wind, geothermal, biogas and low-impact hydro; and Washington, D.C., which uses more than 1 billion kilowatt-hours of green power annually. 

Illinois Town Demands Carbon-Neutral Electricity

Oak Park, the birthplace of author Ernest Hemingway and site of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, is recognized by the EPA as the first US municipality to create an all-green portfolio standard for residents and small businesses that participate in the Oak Park Community Choice Aggregation program.

Even though the town buys renewable energy certificates (RECs) to reach its 100% clean energy goal instead of generating all of it locally, it has inspired hundreds of green-power aggregation programs like it around the US, says the EPA.

"The fact that the electricity generated by wind power is being used someplace else doesn’t change the fact that Oak Parkers are responsible for getting the total amount of electricity they used added to the grid from wind-based generation sources," says Village President David Pope.

The Village is a Smart Grid test bed for its local utility and is investing in on-site solar installations, such as a 99-kilowatt PV array on the Village-owned parking structure that will offset about 30% of the garage’s electricity consumption.   

US Capital Embraces Broad Sustainability Agenda

Washington, DC, holds the distinction as the largest green power community in the US, with more than 11% of its electricity supplied by green sources, according to its EPA Green Power profile.

The US capital adopted Sustainable DC in April 2012, with the aim of being recognized as the nation’s greenest city within a generation. 

Here are some things the city hopes to achieve by 2032:

  • Bring locally grown food to 75% of the population
  • Cover 40% of DC with a healthy tree canopy
  • Make sure 100% of residents are within a 10-minute walk of natural space
  • Cover 75% of all inter-city trips possible using walking, biking or public transit options
  • Achieve zero waste
  • Make 100% of DC waterways fishable and swimmable
  • Use 75% of landscape to filter or capture rainwater for reuse
  • Cut city-wide unemployment rate in half with new green jobs

"I believe we must plan for a city that is sustainable—not just environmentally, but economically and socially as well," says Washington DC Mayor Vincent Gray. "We must continue our investments to revitalize neighborhoods, expand transportation choices, better our health, restore rivers and parks, and improve our schools. By setting ambitious goals for our built environment, climate, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, water, and the green economy, we strengthen the District’s commitment to the core values of quality of life, economic growth, and equal access to opportunity."

Here’s the SustainableDC plan

Report Highlights Emerging Best Practices

Other examples of city-led clean energy innovation are detailed in a recent report from New Energy Cities, Powering the New Energy Future From the Ground Up.

22 communities are profiled in the report, here are some highlights:

  • Fort Collins, Colorado partnered with its utility to test how renewable energy generated from the FortZED district could be integrated into peak-load reduction strategies.
  • The municipally-run Gainesville Regional Utilities in Florida went beyond net-metering to implement a feed-in tariff (FiT) for solar power, making it a world leader in per capita solar installations. Since that time, more than a dozen communities have followed suit.
  • Eugene, Oregon set a goal of housing 90% of its residents in "compact" communities, in which all amenities would be accessible within a 20-minute auto-free trip.
  • Babylon, New York passed one of the country’s most comprehensive building codes for the commercial and industrial sector and launched an innovative home retrofit program, including a Green Certificate of Occupancy.
  • Pendleton, Oregon used a group purchase model in the first stage of its solar program to reduce per-unit costs for participants.
  • Boulder, Colorado voters passed a carbon tax based on electricity consumed to fund measures identified in the city’s climate plan.

"The future of these city-led efforts will become all the more important to watch as federal grants sunset, and if the US Congress continues to avoid passing a comprehensive energy or climate policy," concludes the report.  

Local governments can encourage sustainable consumption by making better use of their authority when it comes to land use and construction oversight, transportation development and waste management policies. The best policies will use both regulations and incentives to encourage voluntary action, according to the report.

The authors note: "Cities are maximizing their community-wide impact through partnerships with utilities, businesses, workforce organizations, educational institutions, nonprofit groups, and citizens.

In particular, the importance of utility partnerships cannot be overstated. Utilities offer significant resources: market expertise, data collection and analysis, incentives, and deployment of advanced technologies. These approaches provide real-time feedback on energy use and tools such as time-of-day pricing that can drive changes in energy consumption."

For the New Energy Cities analysis of community-lead clean energy innovation:

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