100% Renewable Energy Goal Is What Cities Need

Smart Cities Insider interviewed Diane Moss. Diane Moss is the Co-Founder of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute. She has been leading the push for 100% renewable energy in cities. We discussed the obstacles and opportunities of setting 100% renewable energy policies right from the start.

Why should cities have a 100% renewable energy policy right from the start?

Diane Moss: First, non-renewable sources, by definition, can only deplete. In the meantime, continued dependence on them is causing multiple problems. So the real question is not if we need to make the transition to 100% renewable energy, but when, how, and who will lead and profit.

Cities are in a strong position to lead because renewables lend themselves to decentralized implementation. City governments additionally tend to have agility compared to the federal level, they have jurisdiction over important relevant measures like building permitting, and their leaders are close to the impacts of decisions and constituents, which can help to motivate them to act on citizens’ behalf.

Starting with a 100% renewable energy target helps to discipline planners to focus on making a system that works well technically, environmentally and economically. Piecemeal approaches tend to be less efficient and effective. Setting milestones along the way to 100% renewable energy is important because it breaks the big picture goal down to smaller steps and allows communities to celebrate success along the way. It is also good to build in some room for flexibility for how to achieve the ultimate target because, especially in big cities, there are going to be learning curves and technology evolutions on the pathway to reaching 100%.

What are the most common regulatory barriers and obstacles that prevent cities from shifting to 100% renewable energy?

Diane Moss: There are different answers for different regions. Here in the United States, the first cities to be achieving a transition to 100% renewable electricity goals have municipal utilities. Examples include Greensburg, KS, Burlington, VT, Aspen, CO, Palo Alto, CA, and Georgetown, TX. Obviously, it is easier for cities to take control of power procurement choices when they govern the power utility.

What about cities that are in investor owned utility (IOU) territory, which is the case in most of the U.S.? IOUs are typically not motivated to procure any more renewable energy than their state regulator requires. For cities and counties that want to move faster, as well as keep power sales profits for local benefit, one tool that is becoming increasingly popular in states where it is permitted is Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). CCAs allow local governments to procure electricity from the sources they choose and to sell it to their citizens and businesses. Essentially, with a CCA, these local governments form a local public power utility, except that the IOU still owns the grid. Ratepayers can choose to opt out of the CCA and go with the local IOU, if they prefer, which encourages competitive pricing. Take the County of Marin, which has a 100% renewable energy by 2020 target and the oldest CCA in California. Their CCA regularly sells more green power for the buck than the local IOU.

Creating or joining a CCA as a tool for reaching high renewable electricity targets of up to 100% is an emerging trend among cities and counties in California.

Sonoma County launched one, Lancaster’s just started at the beginning of May to help the city reach its net zero energy by 2020 goal, San Diego and San Francisco are seriously considering creating CCAs to achieve their 100% renewable energy targets, and several other cities in the state are exploring similar plans.

Another common hurdle that slows down and raises costs of renewable energy projects is permitting. Progress has been made in many cities on permitting small solar photovoltaics systems. Several cities allow for over the county permitting of rooftop solar systems, which helps to lower costs and installation times. The federal government and some state governments, along with industry groups, have developed thoughtful guidelines on best practices for cities to follow on permitting rooftop solar.

100% renewable energy distribution gridAn additional common obstacle is interconnection of renewables into the distribution grid. This process is typically under IOU jurisdiction and is often reported to be slow, expensive and cumbersome. It doesn’t necessarily have to be, especially for small standard type projects. Typical rooftop solar installations in Germany require a simple interconnection application of a couple pages that takes a few weeks to process. In the U.S., the application is usually dozens of pages and can take months to be fully approved. Many renewables advocacy groups and energy policymakers are looking at streamlining the interconnection process in the US. Hopefully this will bring forth some needed changes.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the obstacles, but these are some commonly reported ones.

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