Power Struggle for Aggressive Urban Renewable Energy Goals
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One hundred U.S. cities have committed to 100 percent renewable energy (RE); some smaller cities have already achieved 100 percent. Renewables are growing in all 50 states. Most of these cities are overcoming opposition from powerful utilities; federal prioritizing of coal and nuclear; and objections that the sun does not always shine and wind does not always blow. These cities are winning the power struggle.
Most electricity in the United States is controlled by major utilities with billions invested in central power plants burning coal, gas, and nuclear. At a time of record heat waves, fires and other climate extremes, these plants run 24/7, emitting billions of tons of greenhouse gases. Generation 24/7 is rarely economic since most cities have only a few peak hours where electricity demand is triple the demand of night hours.
At the Intersolar and ess conferences, I witnessed stunning progress in solar, storage, and software. Utility-scale systems that cost 40 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) ten years ago, cost four cents today. When I ordered a Nissan LEAF in 2010, the automaker paid over $1,000/kWh for the lithium battery; now the cost in my Chevrolet Volt is $145/kWh. Renewable energy is our lowest cost source of energy. With storage, software, and smart grid, RE can be delivered where needed without disruption at record savings.
Seattle Renewable Energy
In this city of 700,000 people, 92 percent of Seattle’s electricity is from renewables. Major Seattle employers make the renewable story even better. Amazon and Microsoft are on a path to meet 100 percent of their global energy needs by entering long-term contracts for wind and solar energy. Critics warned that the transition to renewables would destroy the city’s economy. Instead, Seattle is one of the nation’s top cities in economic growth and job creation.
Since 2005, the city’s largest utility, Seattle City Light, has been 100 percent carbon neutral every year. The utility offers customers a rebate to switch to heat pump water heaters that efficiently use its renewable electricity, instead of heating and cooling with natural gas (methane). Just as batteries can store energy until most needed, hot water can be made off-peak and stored until needed. Such programs help the city do more than meet current electricity use with renewables. Seattle is encouraging everything to be powered with renewables.
Use of renewable energy expands as more buildings are all electric and highly efficient. For example, the Bullitt Center is a certified Living Building, so efficient that its solar roof produces 60 percent more electricity than the center uses.
In mobility, renewables are replacing gasoline and diesel. Starting 2019, the Sound Transit light rail network will use 100 percent clean energy delivered by Puget Sound Energy. On some routes, Metro Transit has long used electric trolley buses that require overhead wires; starting 2020, all new buses will be battery-electric with no overhead wires and powered with renewables. If Cascadia Rail achieves its vision, renewable powered high-speed rail will connect Seattle with Vancouver BC, Portland, Eugene and other cities.
Minneapolis Partners with Stubborn Utilities
Minneapolis has a goal of using 100 percent renewables for municipal facilities by 2022 and citywide by 2030. Lacking Seattle’s hydropower, getting to 100 percent renewables is challenging. Most of Minneapolis’ electricity comes from gas, coal, and nukes. But wind power is abundant, and cheaper than these sources. Solar power is growing.
In 2014, after threatening to form a municipal utility, the city’s existing utilities, Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, agreed to renewable goals, even though they have billions invested in old coal and gas plants. Now, the Minnesota Community Solar Garden program accelerates the shift to renewables with over 100 solar projects (gardens) privately developed and operated delivering electricity through Xcel’s grid.
Wind and solar provide more than electricity for homes and buildings. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, a new electric light-rail system connects the central business districts of the Twin Cities to the University of Minnesota. Long-term, all Twin City transit can be electrified and powered with renewable energy.
Austin Wind and Solar Energy
In the capital city of Texas, 32 percent of energy is generated by renewables. Ten years from now, the city targets 65 percent renewables. To accelerate the use of wind and solar, megawatts of storage are being co-located with a community solar array, in the utility grid, and behind the meter in commercial and residential properties. By 2050, the city has the goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Texas has a winning combination of more wind generation than all other states combined plus a competitive energy market. Corporations can procure Texas wind power for less than coal, methane, and other sources. A customer can choose from a variety of providers rather than one regulated utility monopoly. Texas will have over 20 GW of wind power by the end of this year, more than all but five nations. On a record day, 45 percent of Texas electricity was generated by wind. Since Texas deregulated its energy market in 2002, corporations have poured billions into developing wind and solar in Texas.
Atlanta Confronts Georgia Power
Atlanta is committed to run on 100 renewable energy by 2035, up from only six percent today, with all city buildings using 100 percent RE in seven years. This is in sharp contrast to the years I lived in Atlanta, getting my electricity from dirty coal and gas power plants. Just as Minneapolis challenged its utilities, Atlanta is confronting fossil-fuel dominant Georgia Power, a division of politically powerful Southern Company.
Regulatory barriers to solar power dropped when Georgia’s rate payers got surcharges on their already-high electric bills for two new nuclear plants that are billions over budget. So far, Toshiba has lost $6 billion building Georgia Power’s new nuclear plants, now years behind schedule. Customers rebelled. Georgia’s solar power capacity jumped 13-fold in five years; solar cost dropped to 4 cents per kilowatt hour, lower than coal, gas, and nuclear.
Major corporations also demand renewables. Google, Johnson and Johnson, Target, and Walmart are adding hundreds of megawatts of solar in Georgia. Sonnen, Germany’s leader in battery storage for solar homes and communities has established its U.S. headquarters including innovation and manufacturing in Atlanta.
San Francisco RE ends Coal and Nuclear
San Francisco is committed to achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. California now has zero coal power plants and 50 methane plants will be closed by 2020. On an average day, over 40 percent of California’s electricity is generated with renewables. On a record day, it was 56 percent.
San Francisco’s largest utility, PG&E, is closing the state’s two remaining nuclear plants. Expensive central plants that run 24/7 are no longer desired. PG&E plans to add 567 MW of energy storage at four sites.
Storage, smart grid, and demand management programs enable the addition of more solar and wind. Pumped hydro is the leading source of storage. Thermal storage takes a major role, as hotels, markets, and universities chill and heat water and make ice when electricity rates are lowest off peak. Large lithium batteries are increasingly managed by artificial intelligence (AI) in schools, government, businesses and homes
In California, millions of homes are all-electric and over 800,000 have solar roofs. Electric heat pumps can accommodate all needs for water heating, air conditioning and heating. Starting in 2020, all new California homes will be required to be well insulated, very efficient, and have a solar roof. By 2020, California will have a million homes with solar roofs.
In San Francisco, renewables are also replacing gasoline and diesel as cars, buses, and trucks are increasingly electric. BART commuter rail is already electric; Caltrain is converting to electric. When not riding my electric bicycle, I ride on the city’s 250 electric trolley buses. By 2035, all buses will be electric without requiring the current overhead wires. Uber, Lyft, and dozens of other service providers are testing electric on-demand car, bicycle, and shuttle services that are electric and will be powered by 100 percent renewables, as the city stay’s ahead of schedule to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Reaching 100 percent renewables takes political courage. California puts a price on carbon. Minneapolis facilitates private investment in community solar. Texas ends utility monopoly power with an open market.
One hundred U.S. cities, from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic are winning the power struggle to meet all their electricity needs with solar, wind, and other renewables. Intelligent storage, zero-energy buildings, efficiency, and software now enable 100 percent renewables. With distributed resources, storage and smart grid technologies, these cities are also more resilient, improve our health, and slow pushing climate to extremes. To see how your favorite city or nation can achieve 100 percent renewables, check out The Solutions Project.
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This otherwise inspirational discussion falls short on describing how northern cities will provide heat, except in Seattle, which usually has mild climate. How does Minneapolis expect to attain 100% renewables all winter long, when outside it is unfit for human survival without artificial heat? Will this come from cloudy-day solar, lackluster wind, or battery storage charged up during the summer months and held through winter? Or will they simply continue to burn copious amounts of natural gas October through March just to keep from freezing? That’s a far cry from 100% renewable.
25 percent of U.S. homes are all-electric. Electric heat pumps can meet all heating needs in homes and buildings with insulated walls, roofs, and windows that minimize heat loss. Ideally the heat pumps do not use HFC, another greenhouse gas.
You are correct that we need to eliminate the use of natural gas (methane) as we move to zero energy. Thanks for a good question.