Two ways to help cities finance climate action

The world is increasingly looking to cities to deliver transformative change toward a low-carbon future. Recent studies point to the great carbon reduction potential resting within city limits by cutting building energy use and improving transportation systems. But very real barriers, especially finance, are hindering progress.

Cities need access to dollars to finance both tried-and-true and innovative pilot projects. Nearly 90 percent of local governments consider lack of funding a significant barrier to sustainability efforts in their community, according to a recent survey.

Initiatives are emerging to improve the financial environment. A C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group report released this month characterizes six ways local governments can access dollars: green bonds, city-backed funds, financial institutions/agency finance, equity capital, emissions trading programs, and climate funds.

The first two financing mechanisms are likely familiar to city leaders. Bonds are common tools to catalyze major projects and more local governments are establishing revolving loan funds to promote certain investments. Some of the others may be less understood, and here we take a closer look at two.

Climate Funds

Climate funds are buckets of money to finance clean energy and resilience action. Although commonly used in developing countries, there are a few examples in the United States. The most prominent type are state climate funds that use revenue from programs such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast and California’s cap-and-trade program to support programs like energy efficiency initiatives run by local governments.

A C2ES webinar on financing resilience featured another type of climate fund in the New Jersey Energy Resilience Bank (ERB). The ERB described its work to enhance distributed energy projects for critical facilities like hospitals and utilities by providing low-interest loans drawn from a $200 million federal disaster recovery fund made available after Hurricane Sandy. For example, the ERB is providing a $4.4 million grant and a $3.1 million loan to finance a 2 MW combined heat and power natural gas system at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. The investment will ensure the hospital maintains power – and continues providing life-saving services – even if the surrounding electric grid shuts down in future storms.

Emissions Trading Programs

Emissions trading programs are typically created for major emitters and implemented by state and national governments. So how would a city participate here? Well, emissions trading programs accomplish a unique thing, which is to create new monetary value, in the form of credits, for clean energy projects. This would involve projects like solar installations; energy efficiency programs for neighborhoods, commercial buildings, and even water treatment facilities; methane capture projects at landfills; basically, the kinds of projects cities facilitate or even spearhead. The credits awarded to such projects can be sold to the polluters who have to meet certain quotas.

Outside of municipal utilities in California and RGGI states, there are currently no local governments participating in emissions trading programs in the United States. An interesting opportunity on the horizon is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), which is nestled within the currently stayed Clean Power Plan.

The CEIP is meant to incentivize renewable energy projects and energy efficiency investments in low-income communities by offering tradable credits to project developers. This program could establish a financial incentive that local governments can benefit from directly or indirectly by drawing development dollars and jobs to cities, but whether that happens is up to each state (more on that process here).

Ultimately, for the CEIP to become a funding source that appeals to local governments, a number of challenges will have to addressed. There will need to be:

  • Certainty around Clean Power Plan and the value of credits to minimize the risk associated with the post-project financial incentive,
  • A clear definition of “low-income community,”
  • Certainty around available credits, and
  • Guidance on attracting CEIP projects.

Besides the six types of finance discussed by the C40 report, there are other financing mechanisms available to cities that intrepid leaders have used to overcome this barrier to action. However, given the competition for government attention and resources, it is no surprise that lack of access to finance results in lower prioritizing of sustainability projects. This is an outcome we cannot afford.