Mayors Find Solutions in Power Company Partnerships

The deteriorating state of federal climate leadership in the U.S. may dominate the narrative of climate change news but if you scratch the surface, there are many developments that point to a very committed country of climate leaders.

That’s where the Alliance for a Sustainable Future is aiming its second installment of an annual survey to assess the action cities are taking to address climate change. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and C2ES are collaborating to learn more about what cities are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find better ways to communicate and replicate successes. The 2018 survey – sent last week to municipalities across the country – will provide a critical baseline of understanding for city actions and how they are working with key partners.

One finding of the inaugural 2017 Alliance survey is that nearly two-thirds of cities responded that they were working to generate or purchase renewable energy. We also learned local leaders are engaging with private sector partners, including their local utilities, to change the status quo and push for transformational solutions for government operations and their constituents.

Mayors like Jackie Biskupski of Salt Lake City, Utah are setting out to reduce the energy footprint of their cities. This is no simple task; Salt Lake City, like many other cities, does not operate its own utility and has limited power options in a regulated electricity market. For these reasons, Mayor Biskupski knew she couldn’t get far toward the city’s community-wide goal of 100% renewable energy without a partner. As she explained during a recent webinar with C2ES and The U.S. Conference of Mayors, she and her team set their sights on the partner with the greatest control over the matter – the local utility, Rocky Mountain Power. Together they struck a unique partnership agreement to advance a clean energy implementation plan. Activities include bolstering Rocky Mountain Power’s residential energy efficiency program with additional city funding, linking utility data into the city’s energy benchmarking system, and establishing a 20 MW community solar program for residents, businesses, and municipal use (the city will take 3 MW).

On the other side of the country, in the mountains of Asheville, NC, another partnership called the Blue Horizons Project has grown. Facing the prospect of building a new transmission line and peaker plant to meet the energy demand of a growing region, a multi-stakeholder group of local organizations, local governments, and Duke Energy convened to form a new plan. With help from the Rocky Mountain Institute, it became clear that reducing peak demand by 100 MW would delay or avoid the need to construct the new fossil-fuel peaker plant. The Blue Horizons partners are now collectively pursuing a suite of enhanced energy efficiency programs, new renewable energy and energy storage, and advanced metering infrastructure.

Salt Lake City and Asheville are not alone in partnering with their utilities. Kansas City, Mo., Fayetteville, Ark., and Minneapolis are working with their utilities to expand the cities’ green energy options and achieve energy goals.

It is too early to tell the full impact of these efforts, but they are the kind of collaborations that C2ES is seeking out in our work with The U.S. Conference of Mayors. The Alliance for a Sustainable Future was created to identify and highlight these examples, cultivate productive conversations, and contribute to the body of knowledge needed to advance local climate solutions.

Among other projects, the Alliance hosts webinars to help arm cities and private sector leaders with best-practice information and implementation guidance. In addition to the electricity-focused partnerships described above, these webinars have detailed how:

  • The City of Austin, Tex. assessed the costs and benefits of electrifying city-owned sedans, minivans, and SUVs, identified the best candidates for electrification, determined sites for new charging stations, and established strategies for deployment; and
  • New York City is collaborating with Con Edison to deploy electric vehicle charging stations across the city and adopting electric fleet vehicles at a far faster rate than anticipated by navigating local fleet laws and leveraging an expanding vehicle marketplace.

In May 2018, Mayor Jackie Biskupski was appointed Chair of the Alliance for a Sustainable Future. Mayor Biskupski will continue our focus on city action and partnerships to increase sustainability, with webinars in the coming months on advancing energy efficiency in cities and deploying renewables. The nationwide survey of mayors currently underway will gauge local action and interest in energy efficiency, low-carbon electricity and transportation, and give insight into how public-private partnerships are faring in these areas.

While the mantle taken on by cities, states, and businesses cannot replace a comprehensive national climate policy, the broadening buy-in for climate action is cause for optimism. If we are to meet climate goals, these actors will have to take action to see an economy-wide impact. For cities, innovation can be accelerated with more strategic partnerships, strong planning tools, better use of data, and quicker matchmaking with investors. The partnerships emerging between cities and electric utilities across the country signal there is great potential for additional emission reductions as other cities work to replicate –  and learn from – these successes.