Renewable energy is something that most people can agree is a great idea, but like learning a second language, getting in shape, or donating time to a favorite charity, quickly becomes something that’s pushed off into the indefinite future. The cost, commitment, and political willpower to make the switch can be enough of a deterrent to scare municipalities from exploring what it takes to make the change.
But as a recent Sierra Club report suggests, the shift isn’t as daunting or expensive as many believe. A new report, part of the environmental organization’s Ready for 100% Campaign, profiles 10 cities across the country that have committed to run entirely on renewable energy sources in the near future, or have already met that goal. The sizes of the cities, and solutions they employ, differ, but the overwhelming response from local government officials suggests the shift isn’t only affordable, but fiscally prudent, an important point to make when discussing the politicized world of energy policy.
"We didn’t do this to save the world—we did this to get a competitive rate and reduce the risk for our consumers," says Jim Briggs, Interim City Manager for Georgetown, Texas, which announced plans to buy 100% renewable power by next year. "I’m probably the furthest thing from an Al Gore clone you could find."
Even during a period of relatively low gas prices, the report suggests that cities can still save money, especially with the steep drop in the price of solar and wind power (80% and 60%, respectively). In addition to saving cities and residents money—the paper cites a Stanford study that calculates the average family would save over $200 a year in energy costs and $1,500 a year in healthcare costs with a switch to clean energy—local buy-in of renewable power cute pollution and creates local jobs. The solar industry alone employed more than 200,000 people in 2015.
Here are the ten cities highlighted in the report:
As part of the "Canary Initiative," a group of mountain and resort towns that recognize they are seeing the results of climate change before other cities, Aspen has made a commitment to buy renewable and "protect powder days." The city has committed to cutting greenhouse gases 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050, and already gets its power from 100% renewable sources 50% wind, 45% hydropower, and 5% from solar)
The first city in the nation to cross the 100% renewable threshold, Burlington gets its power from biomass (30%), hydropower (50%) and a mix of landfill methane, wind and solar (20%). While the move only reinforces the city’s progressive cred, the shift was as much a matter of financial acumen; the shift away from fossil fuels will save the city $20 million over the next two decades.
East Hampton, New York
The wealthy enclave on Long Island Sound may boast some incredible real estate, but no amount of money can protect the area from the effects of rising sea levels. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the town adopted a commitment to a fossil fuel-free future, setting the goals of going all renewable for electricity by 2020 and for heating and transportation by 2030. Plans to build a nearby wind farm will ideally speed the town toward reaching these goals.
While it’s located in what’s traditionally known as oil country, that may be shifting, as the state has made ample investment in power lines to help the burgeoning wind energy industry take off. The city has committed to buying all renewable energy by 2017 out of financial reality more than anything else; the growing renewable industry can offer lower prices, and guarantee a long-term, fixed rate.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
The city’s long history of conservation and energy efficiency—Fast Company magazine named it "America’s Greenest City" in 2008—will reach its apex in 2020, when it plans to switch to 100% renewable power. Along with progressive leadership by former Mayor George Heartwell, the city has made slow, incremental, progress for years, fitting out city buildings with energy-efficient windows and geothermal heating, and slowly expanding the number of solar panels on municipal buildings.
As Mayor Bob Dixson says, "The wind that destroyed Greensburg is also the wind that would make us energy sustainable." This small town, ravaged by a tornado in 2007, has bounced back in part due to a local wind farm that supplies more than enough power for Greensburg (the rest is sold as renewable energy credits). In addition, a municipal ordinance requiring buildings larger than 4,000 square feet be LEED Platinum makes sure it’s a more efficient municipality.
The home of the Mayo Clinic, and future home of the massive, multi-billion dollar Destination Medical Center (DMC), this wellness-focused city has made a commitment to expand and develop with sustainability in mind. The city has pledged to go 100% renewable by 2031.
San Jose, California
The center of Silicon Valley has made ambitious plans to go 100% renewable, focusing on growing local solar capacity. While it’s still a ways from meeting its goal, San Jose has worked to support community engagement and buy-in, making permitting easier and using power purchase agreements to install solar at city facilities.
San Diego, California
The sunny, Southern California city became the first big city in the country to agree to a legally binding 100% renewable pledge. In addition to tapping the area’s abundant solar resources, the plan calls for converting the city’s vehicle fleet to 90% electric vehicles and turning landfill gas into fuel to power the rest.
San Francisco, California
The city’s landmark Climate Action Plan, already more than a decade old, has led to local commitments to clean energy, sustainability, and a local utility that supports renewable energy generation, CleanPowerSF.