Economic Benefits

Cities look for new ways to turn on the lights

America's cities are going renewable.
Cities look for new ways to turn on the lights

There’s a new trend going on, and it’s one Americans are going to like a lot.

Cities are increasingly turning to renewable energy to power their municipal utilities and local governments. Even better, they’re committing to wind power for much of this clean electricity. That’s good news, because polls show 87 percent of Americans think renewable energy is important to the country’s future.

The latest headliner is San Diego, which recently announced a goal to source 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035. By creating such an ambitious target, America’s eighth largest city set the bar high for urban areas across the country.

Greensburg, KS, Aspen, CO, Burlington, VT, and Georgetown, TX were early trailblazers, committing to source 100 percent of their municipal utilities’ electricity from renewable energy. These utilities signed a mixture of power purchase agreements (PPA) and long-term contracts to purchase wind energy from specific projects.

PPAs allow cities to lock in a fixed price for electricity provided by wind power over periods of 10 to 20 years. The long-term contracts provide shelter against volatile fuel prices and help local governments to reach their environmental targets.

Other cities are also making important progress, even if they’re not quite at the same levels. This summer, Washington, D.C. signed an agreement to get 35 percent of the city government’s energy from wind, while Austin, TX’s municipal utility Austin Energy contracted the supply of over 1,500 megawatts (MW) of wind power.

The motivations for these moves are varied.

Greensburg suffered a devastating tornado in 2007 that destroyed 95 percent of the town’s structures. When it came time to rebuild, Greensburg’s residents decided they wanted to do so in the most sustainable way possible, leading them to choose wind power for 100 percent of their electricity needs.

While not every shift was as dramatic as Greensburg’s, city officials cited a number of reasons for switching to renewable energy.

Citizens in Aspen expressed environmental concerns. In Georgetown, leaders said the decision to turn to wind and solar was primarily based on finances. Keith Hutchinson, a city spokesman, explained the new PPAs were cheaper than previous deals with traditional utilities while having the added benefit of protecting citizens from natural gas price fluctuations.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future for fossil fuel regulations,” said Hutchinson. “This really removes that element from our price costs going forward.”

The Burlington Electric Department represents the largest municipal utility to date to go 100 percent renewable, with over 40,000 customers.

Washington, D.C. hit all of these themes in its wind PPA announcement. Mark Chambers, Sustainability and Energy Management Director at the city’s Department of General Services, said, “Directly sourcing renewable power costs 30 percent less than fossil fuel-based sources, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 100,000 tons, and protects our city from volatile energy price increases.”

This innovative thinking about meeting electricity demand is likely to continue in 2016. We’re excited to see which cities join the list next.

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