United Nations Environment Programme

Going for 100%

More and more cities are pledging to switch over entirely to renewable energy
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The City of Victoria, British Columbia voted in August to become the third Canadian municipality so far this year to commit to 100% renewable energy.
What does a climate leader look like? It is a local government that plans to power all its community’s energy needs using renewables in at least one of the three main sectors: electricity, heating/cooling, and transportation.

Oxford County is a sleepy little farming county in the agricultural heart of southwestern Ontario, Canada. Some 4,000 km away, San Diego is a Californian metropolis of 1.4 million dubbed the “City of Villages” for its many distinct communities. Across the Atlantic, Osnabrück, Germany is home to a Volkswagen car plant and known as the “City of Peace” for its role in ending the 17th century Thirty Years' War.

Despite their diversity, these municipalities have something in common: they all have set 100 per cent renewable energy targets, making them leaders in the fight against climate change. And, since creating the Renewable Cities program, we have learned that they are in good company.

After a devastating tornado in 2007, Greensburg, Kansas elected to rebuild using only renewable energy, spurred by rising fuel prices and a wish to keep energy dollars and jobs local. In 2014, Fukushima, Japan pledged it would be entirely powered by renewable electricity by 2040 in direct response to the 2011 Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown. And last year, Vancouver, Canada set a 100 per cent renewable energy target for 2050 as the next step in its Greenest City Action Plan.

After a decade of negotiations with the California Utilities Commission, customers in San Francisco can now purchase locally-produced renewable electricity through Community Choice Aggregation. Following re-municipalization of the electricity grid, residents of Wolfhagen, Germany now participate in democratic decision-making through an electricity cooperative they co-own with the utility. And the T’sou-ke Nation of British Columbia has become Canada’s first Aboriginal solar community as it seeks self-sufficiency and freedom from fossil fuels.

These examples show that the reasons for shifting to 100 per cent renewable energy are as different as the communities themselves. Each local government, having its own priorities and values, has an equally unique rationale and strategy for reaching the target.

Fortunately, such strategies can be integrated into pre-existing planning frameworks and reporting schemes. Smart cities can tailor energy services at a hyper-local level well suited to micro-grids. Members of the 100 Resilient Cities network are able both to mitigate their vulnerability to natural and manmade risks and to adapt to system interruptions. And for carbon neutral cities, renewable energy systems can also be zero-carbon (though ‘renewable’ should not be presumed to be synonymous with ‘zero-carbon’).

Unfortunately, integration into complex policy and planning documents makes it hard to track 100 per cent renewable energy targets – and new commitments are continually being made and achieved. In July, for example, the Sierra Club’s Readyfor100 campaign summarized 10 case studies of American cities and towns that have set such targets. But the number of legislated commitments had already grown to 13 by the time its list was published. Similarly, the rapid rate of uptake makes it hard for GO100RE and GO100PERCENT to keep up to date the interactive maps they host of projects, corporations, and communities with these targets. In fact, even as I wrote this, the City of Victoria, British Columbia was voting in favour of such a commitment—bringing Canada’s 100 per cent renewable energy municipalities to three in less than a year!

The proliferation of ambitious renewable energy targets shows that cities are taking action where other levels of government are lagging. Yet when Renewable Cities formed in 2015, the commonest question was: Why cities? The answer, to quote a participant at our recent North American Dialogue in San Francisco, is: “At the city level, the buck stops here. There aren’t really excuses, we can’t run off to a state or federal legislator; we have to be responsive immediately.” Cities are “where the rubber hits the road.” They are where “grassroots” action meets policy-making, and they are the “sponges” that absorb climate refugees. Every cliché fits the role local governments must play in the global drama of fighting climate change. Still, cities are not alone.

Corporations are also setting 100 per cent renewable energy targets. RE100 - a campaign led by the Climate Group and CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) - helps companies like Apple to reach them. The 'green Apple' story is about a large corporate campus thriving without fossil fuels and becoming energy independent, demonstrating that large renewable production and storage is feasible. Corporations also lend a loud voice to the call for transforming traditional energy utilities with new ownership models and invest much needed capital in technological innovation. Indeed, the world’s wealthiest corporate leaders recently formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to speed up innovation in clean, affordable energy. And corporate commitments directly help cities achieve their own targets.

Targets for 100 per cent renewable energy are at the intersection of policy-making and technological development. Putting theory into practice, Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University has charted a completely renewable energy mix for every American state and Canadian province, and is now turning his attention to cities. Oxford County, for example, is forming a “sustainability cluster” in partnership with stakeholders like York University and the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Centre to become a public hub of innovation. Needless to say, investors won’t have to look hard for opportunities.

So, what does a climate leader look like? It is a local government that plans to power all its community’s energy needs using renewables in at least one of the three main sectors: electricity, heating/cooling, and transportation. It puts renewable energy at the core of its planning to help the community reduce GHG emissions and pollution and become resilient to system shocks caused by climate change and other threats. Even more than that, it puts people first and envisions a community that is self-sufficient with a growing local energy economy, creating local jobs and keeping energy money at home, while also promoting energy conservation. In short, it looks like every local government that is fighting the impacts of climate change, with a commitment to 100 per cent renewable energy.