Can Your City Commit to 100-Percent Renewable Energy?


By Don Willlmott

Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

It's the latest trend in progressive urban planning. Cities around the world are rushing to commit to running on 100-percent renewable energy as soon as possible. From Burlington, Vermont, to Kisielice, Poland, local leaders are either trumpeting the success they've already had or making plans to kick fossil fuels out of town.

It may be a great idea, but can a major metropolis make the same pledge and actually achieve the goal? We'll find out by watching Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, where the city council voted in March to go 100-percent renewable by about 2030, and not just for electricity but for heating, cooling, and maybe even transportation as well. A workable timetable is expected to emerge from a committee later this year. (In the U.S., San Diego has put itself on a similar timeline.)

Vancouver already has a healthy head start, with 32 percent of its energy currently renewable, including 90 percent of its hydropower electricity. As Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a statement:

The future of Vancouver's economy and livability will depend on our ability to confront and adapt to climate change, and moving toward renewable energy is another way that Vancouver is working to become the greenest city in the world.

To bolster their case, proponents of the initiative point to the potential costs of doing nothing, saying in the motion:

The impacts of climate change and resulting extreme weather are increasingly being felt as rising economic impacts, social conflicts, damaged infrastructure and loss of human life with adaptation costs in Metro Vancouver being pegged at (U.S.) $7.83 billion at a minimum.

What other municipalities are making this kind of pledge? Aspen, Colorado; the Caribbean island of Bonaire; Copenhagen, Denmark; Frankfurt and Munich, Germany; the Isle of Wight; San Francisco and San Jose, California; and many more to come.

Meanwhile, deep in the oil-pumping heart of Texas, the small city of Georgetown, population 54,000, is the first city in the Lone Star State (and the 13th in the U.S.) to commit to 100-percent renewable energy, and once again, the argument to go for it is economical rather than environmental.

According to the Dallas Morning News, the local electric company has signed a deal with solar developer SunEdison for 150 megawatts of solar power beginning in 2016. Added to a 2014 deal with wind developer EDF, the city says it has enough renewable power under contract to cover the city's electricity needs at a lower rate than the city now pays. And with contracts running through 2041, the city has protected itself from spikes in power prices.

And how about Hawaii? Its state legislature hopes to improve its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 100-percent fully renewable by 2045, the first state to do so. "We'll now be the most populated set of islands in the world with an independent grid to establish a 100 percent renewable electricity goal," State Senator Mike Gabbard (D) told ThinkProgress. "And we'll achieve the biggest energy turnaround in the country, going from 90 percent dependence on fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy." Today, the Aloha State is 10-percent solar.

And then there's Costa Rica, which managed to produce an entire nation's worth of renewable electricity for 75 days earlier this year. Heavy rains pumped up the output of the country's four hydropower plants, and it also relies on a growing mix of wind, solar, and geothermal energy. In fact, Costa Rica's volcanic geology has huge geothermal potential: last year, the government appropriated close to $1 billion for three new geothermal projects, which may produce 150 megawatts of renewable power.

Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

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