What impact can cities have on addressing a global challenge?

What good are city clean-energy targets? To answer this broader question, let’s tackle each specific point above.

Setting a future target can inspire, build consensus and spur action today

Cities often commit to meeting their goals 10 or more years into the future. Ambitious, long-term targets not only provide an inspiring vision for a community but also motivate action today. Specifically, setting a target allows cities to collaborate with their community to develop a plan which meets citizens’ needs and accelerate clean energy projects in the near term.

Collaborating with communities to develop plans: Renewable energy enjoys broad bipartisan support in the United States, yet many communities still struggle to prioritize renewable energy over more immediate concerns. The process of establishing a renewable energy target provides city governments with a high-visibility opportunity to engage their community, identify key issues and priorities, and generate excitement and support for a plan. As a result, city sustainability plans are evolving to encompass additional community priorities. 

Accelerating clean energy projects in the near term: Enacting a renewable energy target helps city staff to muster internal resources to complete renewable energy projects. To complete any project, champions within city government have to approach staff from various departments (legal, finance, and general services) and convince them to take on additional responsibilities. All cities struggle with a lack of internal staff capacity, so these conversations can be challenging even if the individuals involved support the project in principle. Establishing a clean energy goal simplifies these internal conversations.

Targets send powerful signals

Cities in certain utility regulatory environments, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are able to immediately act on ambitious targets by purchasing large amounts of renewable energy on the open market. However, other cities in states served by integrated monopoly utilities lack the ability to make these large purchases themselves and must work with their utility. If the utility does not already offer viable solutions such as a green tariff, cities can set targets to signal their intentions to their utility and/or state-level decision makers and accelerate the creation of new pathways to purchase renewable energy.

City targets are meaningful

Cities are already poised to make a substantial impact both directly and by scaling renewable energy adoption within their communities.

Direct impact: Cities use a lot of energy and, as a consequence, have the potential to drive a significant amount of renewable energy development.

Scaling potential: Cities are ideally positioned to scale renewable energy adoption within their communities. Cities which run their own utilities, such as Austin, Texas, can directly provide renewable energy to their customers; Austin is on track to be over 50 percent renewably powered by 2020. Meanwhile, other cities are working with their communities to accelerate renewable energy adoption. 

Cities can make a difference today

Big transitions are challenging, and cities sometimes will have to fight uphill to achieve their goals. Of course, federal legislation could dramatically simplify and accelerate this transition by enabling competition, pricing carbon and supporting basic research, but that doesn’t mean that local communities have to wait.

Clearly articulated city renewable energy goals enable local action today, provide an important signal to utilities and state decision makers to drive change, and, collectively, are propelling our country toward a more prosperous, secure, low-carbon future. Looking forward, as more cities adopt the strategies of these trail blazers or develop their own, achieving renewable energy targets will become easier, faster and cheaper — driving yet more adoption.

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