Oakland’s Clean Energy Economy Strategy
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American cities face a variety of challenges, with broad social needs like affordable housing, urban blight, structural budget deficits, and crumbling infrastructure dominating the political conversation. While climate change tends to arise in governance circles, it typically does so as a stand-alone topic. Rarely are climate solutions raised or seriously considered as the basis for strategies to address broad social issues. This is perhaps the most important indicator of how governments have failed to realize the potential of climate solutions to impact social priorities. And the inverse of that statement is the frame through which cities across the United States and beyond can begin to rethink their approach to managing and preserving infrastructure and services.
In my city of Oakland, California, climate change policies and programs are a core approach to creating jobs, raising wages, addressing historical inequities for women and minorities, improving the health of residents, and improving the quality of life for all. In the battle for the soul of a nation, cities like Oakland are showing that the clean energy economy is America’s best strategy for creating a prosperous and better tomorrow.
Restoring prosperity under such conditions will be a generational challenge, but offers enormous potential. The best place to start is the clean energy economy. Multiple federal, state, non-profit, and research organizations have documented the impact that the transition to low carbon energy has had on jobs creation, health, and lowering costs of energy. At the local level, states and cities are passing regulations, creating partnerships, and advancing new ideas that are bringing this vision closer to reality. One example is the longstanding dependence of cities on natural gas. The popular opinion of natural gas remains consistent with how it was marketed in the 1990s – a cheap, clean, reliable “bridge” away from coal-based electricity. This antiquated notion bears little resemblance to modern science and data.
Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas exceed those of coal in the U.S., and have since 2015. Natural gas is not only a dirtier fuel than electricity in many parts of the country, it also creates fire risk in homes, can create massive community safety and health risks from its transmission and storage, and often requires fracking and other dangerous and polluting practices to extract. Perhaps its most troublesome aspect is its impact on the health of people who use it. Studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Institutes of Health, California Energy Commission, and Johns Hopkins University have documented unhealthy levels of nitrous oxides (NOx) in homes with gas cooktops, particularly noting the disproportionately negative impact on inner city African American children. In short, natural gas systems are responsible for driving up GHG emissions, increasing fire risk for buildings, creating community hazards, and sickening residents, particularly children. Yet cities continue to allow, or in many cases require, natural gas infrastructure to be constructed in homes and businesses.
Oakland and other cities in California are working to end this dependence on natural gas in new construction. Cities, product manufacturers, regulators, and utilities in California have been working together under the Building Decarbonization Coalition to end the use of natural gas in buildings. This coalition and its members have demonstrated the availability of electric technologies to replace gas systems in all building types, shown that all-electric new construction is cheaper to build and operate than buildings with gas, and helped educate builders and contractors to show how modern electric systems like heat pumps and induction cooking deliver better cooking and heating for homes and businesses than their gas-based alternatives. None of those statements would have been true even five years ago, but the rapid change in technologies have fundamentally changed the way cities can think about their buildings. More than 50 cities in California are expected to bring forth limitations or complete elimination of natural gas systems in newly constructed buildings by early 2020.
By taking this action, Oakland and others are priming the market for clean electric technologies that will further lower costs and spur market investment. Newly constructed buildings will be cleaner, safer, easier to maintain over time, and more resilient to a changing climate, all while reducing GHG emissions. The reduction in costs for technologies, along with the training of contractors and builders, will allow cities to better and more effectively focus on retrofitting the existing building stock in the years to come. This approach will likely take 20-30 years to fully reach all buildings, but will result in lower utility bills, reduced fire risk, improved indoor air quality, and more comfortable buildings. By focusing on climate ready solutions, Oakland and its fellow cities will positively impact broad strategies on affordable housing development, reducing liability for gas infrastructure, adapting to climate change, and building local jobs in the clean energy economy.
Beyond natural gas, opportunities are rapidly being created in clean transportation, the circular economy, carbon sequestration, and the digital revolution. In 2018, Oakland became the first City in North America to fully model the costs and impacts of these potential actions at the City scale, creating a landmark report that demonstrates the City can reach hugely ambitious climate goals in ways that build the local economy, reduce long-term costs and liabilities, improve equitable outcomes, and help tackle broad social needs. Oakland is tackling these challenges on multiple fronts, and working with its partners in government, industry, and the community to lead the transition to a cleaner, greener, and healthier future. Among the additional strategies underway include:
- A Capital Improvements Program that scores infrastructure investments on sustainability and equity as well as pavement condition and replacement cost.
- Establishment of a community choice energy program that now delivers 85% carbon free electricity to all customers, at a lower cost than the previous investor owned utility.
- Electric vehicle infrastructure requirements for all new multifamily and commercial developments
- Use of a community-based Equity Facilitator to direct public engagement and outreach activities for the creation of a 2030 Equitable Climate Action Plan
The time is here for cities to begin truly realizing the potential of climate solutions to change the urban fabric in ways that benefit all people in our communities, particularly those that have been disadvantaged by the ways in which our cities were originally developed. In this way, we can demonstrate a style of leadership that advances our policy and social needs to achieve the equitable low carbon cities our world truly needs.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.