How is America doing in transitioning to a future powered by clean energy?

I spoke with Jodie Van Horn, Director of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, to find out about the actions being taken by communities across the US to shift the country to 100% renewable energy.

Listen to what Jodie had to say in this audio edit of the interview.

Or read the full Q&A here:

What steps are you taking to get to 100% renewable energy? 

J: There are over 60 cities in the US that have committed to 100%  clean, renewable energy. And there is no one way to get there. Every city is charting its unique path to achieve its goal of 100% renewable energy; this is because the resources available to them, as well as the values that guide their implementation, are distinct in each location.

So you take each city as a completely new project? 

J: That’s right. No two cities will achieve 100% renewable energy in exactly the same way. Although, the motivations to get there are similar to the cities: they want cheaper, healthier and more stable energy to power their communities.

Can you give me some examples of cities that are pursuing this and how they are doing so? 

J: When it comes to achieving 100% renewable energy many roads lead to Rome. Cities not only assess which resources are available but also which values will guide their plan. The transition to 100% renewable energy is an opportunity for cities to build a more affordable, democratic and locally controlled energy system. Nevertheless, some cities are choosing to achieve their goal by utilising a mix of auto-produced renewable energy and partner with their electric utility to bring more renewable energy onto the grid. Much of the variation regarding this strategy depends on state-level policies and regulation: in the US a lot of our energy policy is set at the state level and not at the federal level. In this context, each city is working with a different set of state policies that dictates what options and pathways are available to them.

So, from what I understand, each city has a different percentage of what is going to be auto-produced energy and what is going to come from partnerships with the electric utility. Is that correct?

J: Yes. And there are different pathways to get there. In Salt Lake City, which committed to reaching 100% renewable energy by 2032, the city and the surrounding community is working with the utility company to achieve its goal. They have signed a cooperation agreement and released a detailed plan last year, in which they describe how they will form a partnership with the utility companies to increase energy efficiency across the city, and how they want to increase investment in solar and expand electric vehicles across Salt Lake City. So, they aim to reach their goal through a mix of different technologies, but they are doing so in partnership with the corporate utility Rocky Mountain Power.

It great that utility companies want to cooperate in shifting towards 100% renewable energy…

J: Yes, however, some do, and some don’t. Not all utility companies are created equal. So where there are opportunities for collaboration, cities are pursuing a partnership. Where utilities are trying to block progress, many cities have taken matters into their own hands. So an example of that is in Colorado, where both the city of Boulder Colorado and Pueblo, Colorado are actually looking into forming a municipal utility as a way to achieve their goals, without relying on the electric utility. I mean, municipalization is a strategy that cities can use to put power back into the hands of city leaders and residents, allowing them to make the decisions that determine their ability to achieve this goal.

Is the input to change coming from the citizens or the mayors of the cities? Who do you see fighting for this change the most?

J: The campaigns to get cities to go 100% have really been a broad movement of students, businesses, parents, faith leaders and community members from across these cities and they are asking for 100% renewable energy because they want to lower energy costs, cut air pollution, and expand opportunities for jobs, and businesses locally.

Great! So this is a movement led by people who want to deliver real change?

J: Right, it is coming from a movement of residents and businesses locally asking their elected leaders to raise ambition, to be more ambitious in the fight for clean energy and a more equitable economy. And so local elected leaders are doing this now 60 cities in the US. This is because local officials know that there is a lot of demand for cleaner, more affordable, renewable energy and the public wants cleaner more affordable renewable energy. At the local level, elected officials are often more accountable to the public interest.

Of course, because they are closer to the citizens…

J: Right.

Do you think that these people want to make this shift happen for environmental benefits reasons only or also because they can see the economic sense that it makes to shift to renewables?

J: I think it is for both reasons. City leaders know that moving to 100% renewable energy protects our families from pollution, creates new jobs, economic opportunities and ensures that people will have long-term access to affordable energy solutions.

We have seen in the US that there is bipartisan support: both conservative and more progressive cities are moving towards 100% renewable energy because it is the right thing to do. They have different reasons to do so. The mayor of Georgetown in Texas, which is a very conservative oil-producing state in the country, has committed to 100% renewable energy because it was the cheapest option. And Georgetown will now become one of the first cities in the US to be powered entirely by wind and solar because those were the cheapest forms of energies. So, some cities are not doing it for environmental reasons; they are doing it purely because of the economics.

There are currently five cities in the US that have already achieved their goal, and the other 55 are working towards it. So, Georgetown in Texas will become the 6th city in the country to achieve 100% renewable energy. We expect this because they have signed contracts for wind and solar to meet 100% of their needs. We know that they are coming because the agreements are signed, but they are not yet officially generating that energy yet.

So Aspen, Colorado, Greensburg, Kansas, Burlington Vermont and an island in Alaska called Codiac Island are all cities that are already achieving 100% of their electricity from renewable energy. In Aspen, for example, roughly half of the city’s energy supply had entered into a contract with an energy company to buy wind power to replace the remaining coal that was on the electricity grid and hit, in this way, the 100% target. So again, they are doing it in different ways, but that number is growing. The number of cities that are moving from being committed to achieving the goal is growing rapidly as cities seek to implement their targets quickly.

We are advocating that cities achieve the 100% renewable energy goal through a mix of actions: reducing energy; shifting to wind, solar and other grid-stabilising technologies like energy storage, demand response and grid modernisation.

I think one thing cities that are committed to 100% renewable energy are realising is that all new construction needs to be sustainable from the start and built with renewable energy. So many cities are passing ordinances locally to ensure that all new buildings are net-zero buildings, that they have solar installed when they are constructed, that they are efficient and that they have the infrastructure for electric transportation and electric vehicle charging stations. So, when there are new constructions, of course, there is an opportunity to build it smart from the start, but in a lot of cases when buildings and infrastructures are older, we need to look for ways to reshape it to make it more sustainable. Take the example of Greensburg, which is a fascinating story: an opportunity built from tragedy. The city was destroyed by a tornado and they chose to completely rebuild the city in a sustainable way using entirely renewable energy. Of course, we don’t want to wait for catastrophies to strike to move towards 100% renewable energy. We already see the impact of climate change in so many of our cities, and you know, it should not require a disaster for our elected officials to start taking bold actions to solve this problem.

Definitely! Do you know of any similar movement here in Europe that are trying to make this shift happen? 

J: I do, in fact, in the UK there is a programme called UK 100 and it is similar to the Ready for 100% campaign, and they are working to get 100 cities across the UK to 100% renewable energy. I think they might have already achieved this goal. And similarly, there is an organisation in Germany, the World Future Council, running an initiative called the 100% Renewable Energy Campaign. That campaign is coordinating organisations like the Sierra Club all across the globe. There is lots going on Europe to support efforts to move to 100% renewable energy through the sharing of resources, ideas, best practices, and technical information, which helps groups like the Sierra Club work more effectively with our cities. 

What are your plans after 100 communities commit to clean power, given you are already at 60? 

J: We hope that 100 cities will be working towards their goal of 100% renewable energy by the end of this year. But of course, once a city commits, there is a lot of work ahead. So our primary objective, as we continue to work with cities beyond the commitment stage, is to ensure that there is a very transparent public engagement process that gives communities a voice in how cities should achieve their goals and ensures that the transition to 100% renewable energy is equitable, meaning that the way we get there focuses on providing benefits to those communities that have been most impacted by the fossil fuel economy.

So you are going to take care of the first 100, and then see whether there is going to be a new Ready for 100% Campaign, or maybe even 200?

J: Well, the long game on this is that, as cities raise the bar on clean energy and climate leadership, it will influence higher-level decision making. In this way, 100% cities will become 100% states and eventually they will drive progress for the whole country to achieve 100% renewable energy across the economy. What we need is for the US as a country to move to 100% renewable energy no later than 2050 in all sectors if we are going to ensure that we are meeting the goals of our obligations to fight climate change.

So it is also well aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

J: That is exactly right. There is an interesting paper published by the Global 100% Renewable Energy Campaign on how 100% renewable energy can help achieve the sustainable development goals. What is clear is that the action that we need globally is starting locally. That local action will drive the systemic change that we really need across the US and across the globe.

It is heartening to know that even though the government in the US denies climate change, there are still people that commit and believe in this and have their eyes open to what is going on around them…

J. It is the antidote to Trump’s policies. As Trump has turned his back on clean energy, clean air and a safe climate, cities, businesses and states have really stepped up in the US to say that we are going to achieve that our country’s commitment to the rest of the world to address climate change and we are going to do it despite the inaction from the federal governement. So it is hopeful and I think it is providing people with a lot of hope that we need at a very difficult present time.

As a European, I have seen America lead the way, on both bad and good trends. So I hope this time the US is going to lead the way towards a more sustainable way of living. That’s what we want and what we need…

J: That’s right. We need the courage to keep going, and that courage right now is coming from the American public, and it is coming from local municipal, business and state leaders who are not going to put politics in the way of the safety of our communities.