At Ensia, Jon Foley explores how we can break the cycle of climate inaction:
Frankly, we cannot afford to waste more time in a state of denial, saying that maybe this time our national leaders will wake up and take the problem seriously. We need to look for leadership and solutions elsewhere.
More importantly, we need to match our climate solutions to situations where leadership is still effective. We need to find targeted, strategic opportunities to reduce emissions, matching solutions to effective leadership.
But just where are those targeted opportunities?
In the search for effective climate solutions, we need to look for what I call “planet levers”: Places where relatively focused efforts, targeted the right way, can translate into big outcomes. Just like a real lever, the trick is to apply the right amount of force in just the right place, with little opposition.
In the search for planet levers to address climate change, we should look for ways to significantly cut emissions that don’t require grand policy solutions, such as carbon taxes or global cap-and-trade schemes, or the approval of the U.S. Congress or the United Nations. We need practical solutions to substantially cut emissions that work with a handful of nimble actors — including a few key nations, states, cities and companies — to get started.
Focusing on cities presents a particularly good set of levers to address climate change. Cities represent a nexus point of critical infrastructure — for electricity, communications, heating and cooling, and transportation — that are already in desperate need of improvement, and shifting them toward low-carbon “climate smart” technologies is a natural progression. Done right, most of these investments would improve the health, economic vitality, efficiency and livability of cities. Most important, most cities largely avoid the partisan gridlock of our national (and some state) governments, making them an excellent place for making progress.
I agree with Jon that cities are a good place to focus, not only because they have “functioning governments” that aren’t deadlocked, but because they have some key policy levers that can be pulled without a great deal of opposition, without getting a huge number of actors involved (creating potential for gridlock or slow movement), and that could have significant emissions impacts in a short time period.
Here are some of the local climate levers I think we can lean on locally, mostly at the city level.
Community choice aggregation (CCA)
The deregulation of electric utility markets is usually associated with some bad outcomes. However, it can have positive benefits as well. Since July of this year, over 58,000 residents and over 7,000 small business customers in Cleveland have received a 21% savings on their electricity bill AND received electricity from 100% green sources (50% wind, 50% hydro) through the Cleveland Municipal Aggregation Program.
This type of program is made possible by the fact that in deregulated electricity markets, cities can act as bulk purchasers for all or many of their community’s electrical customers. This large buying power allows cities to negotiate good terms – like low rates and high renewable percentages. These programs also don’t require the dismantling or purchasing of local investor-owned utilities. Six states allow CCAs, and to date eight cities have used this authority to secure cleaner, more affordable power for their residents. Most allow customers to opt-out and stay with their existing utility if they choose.
A program that requires electric customers to basically do nothing and could reduce the city’s greenhouse gas footprint 3% seems like a pretty good lever.
Note: state legislation is required to make CCA a reality.
Community solar (solar gardens)
Most people in Minnesota (some say only a third) have a roof that is good for collecting solar energy. Shading, orientation, structural integrity, and ownership structure are just a few of the potential barriers to putting solar on roofs. Matching the demand for solar with the supply of best locations, developed at a large scale for efficiencies, is something community solar or solar gardens can do. These programs could be a powerful climate lever. According to Midwest Energy News:
Minnesota’s first community solar project in Rockford, MN. Image courtesy Wright-Hennepin Cooperative.
The idea is to let customers who can’t or don’t want to install solar panels on their own rooftop instead buy individual panels in a nearby solar development. The electricity generated by a customer’s panels is credited to their utility bill as if they were installed on their home or business.
New legislation makes this possible in Minnesota. In Colorado, where the program has been in place since 2012, 9 megawatts of solar was sold out in 30 minutes. That’s roughly the equivalent of 3,000 single family home-sized systems. Time will tell if this demand by project developers translates into strong demand by consumers.
Solar gardens generally require state policy change (except in the case of a municipal or cooperative utility), but don’t require thousands of people making individual installation decisions, hiring contractors, finding financing, etc. A smaller number of experienced installers can do big projects with (theoretically) lower costs, supported by community interest. Customers can buy-in to solar projects at whatever level they choose (usually bound by a minimum and maximum) but can skip all the installation headaches.
Capturing waste heat from the sewer
This one is my favorite. There is a large supply of wasted heat flowing directly beneath our feet all day because we’ve literally flushed it down the drain. One estimate says we’re flushing away 350 billion kWh of energy each year. That’s more than 35 Minneapolis’ worth of energy every year.
Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek Neighborhood Energy Utility
Sewer waste heat recovery systems, or “sewer thermal”, work just like ground-source heat pumps to pre-condition air or water before they are used for heating and cooling (don’t worry, no sewer water or gas gets into your air conditioner). In the Olympic Village neighborhood of Vancouver, sewer waste heat provides 70% of the annual energy demand of a district heating system (natural gas provides the rest). National Geographic has a good overview of the growing attention being paid to sewer thermal.
All major cities have large sewer mains collocated with the highest density development. Tapping this waste heat resource would require digging up those pipes, but it can be done much more easily in conjunction with large new redevelopment projects. And generally, there are few actors: wastewater utilities control the pipes, cities control the right of way.
Making energy use transparent
According to the EPA, the commercial and residential sectors were responsible for 40% of US greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels (which is itself responsible for 79 percent of emissions) in 2011. And in most major cities, it’s the large buildings (usually commercial buildings) that are associated with half or more of the energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Making these buildings more energy efficient could be a significant climate lever, but that requires knowing how they are performing now and motivating action from their owners and managers.
Nine cities in the US (and many more internationally) are addressing building energy use by making energy usage information more transparent. Building rating and disclosure policies (typically enacted by cities) require large buildings to use widely adopted benchmarking tools to measure their energy performance, and generally require them to disclose this information, along with a score, to the public.
In New York City, one million residents can now see how much energy and water their apartment buildings consumed. In total, over 2 billion square feet of real estate in New York City is now benchmarking building energy and water performance each year. This information isn’t just for tenants, building owners and managers, real estate professionals, and energy service providers can all use this information to improve the performance of the building stock. In 2012, in their first report on benchmarked buildings, New York City estimated that:
If all comparatively inefficient large commercial buildings were brought up to the median energy use intensity in their category, New York City consumers could reduce energy consumption in large buildings by roughly 18% and GHG emissions by 20%. If all large buildings could improve to the 75th percentile, the theoretical savings potential grows to roughly 31% for energy and 33% for GHG emissions. Since large buildings are responsible for 45% of all citywide carbon emissions, this translates into a citywide GHG emissions reduction of 9% and 15% respectively. Much of this improvement could be achieved very cost-effectively through improved operations and maintenance.
An EPA study also showed that buildings doing benchmarking reduce their energy usage. An analysis of 35,000 large buildings over three years showed that these buildings showed a 7 percent average energy savings. Many of these policies are very new (NYC has only reported results for two years), so time will tell how increased public scrutiny of energy performance influences energy use. But ask any building professional, and they will tell you that the first step to improving efficiency is measuring what is currently being used.
Streetlights typically account for a significant portion of the electricity used by a city government enterprise. For Minneapolis, its 31 percent. Navigant says up to 40% can be typical. Water treatment (for drinking) and wastewater treatment are two other major sources of energy use for cities or regional government entities.
Streetlight retrofits can often be done by a city itself, if they own the lights, or by the utility, which is also sometimes the owner. Retrofits can be quick (a few years), and the paybacks, both in greenhouse gas emissions and cost, can be significant.
LA’s Hoover Street before and after LED lighting retrofit. Image via Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting
Los Angeles recently completed the world’s largest swap-out, replacing 140,000 lights. Los Angeles estimates it will save $7 million in energy costs and $2.5 million in avoided maintenance costs (LEDs can last as long as 20 years, versus the standard lights 6). The project will be paid off in seven years. New York City, Las Vegas, Austin Texas, San Antonio, and Eden Prairie, Minnesota are all switching. For cities in the metro that don’t own their own lights, Xcel Energy is testing 500 LED lights in West Saint Paul, and could set a new rate for cities once the test is complete. Initial results are showing energy use is cut in half, while the quality of the light has improved.
These are some examples of “levers” I think can be pulled relatively quickly, and without a great deal of political wrangling. And maybe more importantly, they can be done at the local level, usually by cities. Cities are demonstrating they can and will move on climate, breaking what Jon calls the “cycle of climate inaction”.
There may be other strategies which are essential to addressing climate change, but which require engaging many more stakeholders and/or take significantly more time (an example might be residential building energy retrofits). These strategies may be just as critical, often because they may address issues besides energy and climate – like environmental equity. But if we want to work on a timetable that’s anything close to what they experts call for, we should identify and prioritize these short timeframe, high-impact levers we can pull at home.