Cities need to focus on facilitating the energy transition, not focus on 100 per cent renewables

Hundreds of cities are now committing themselves to be 100 per cent on renewables at specified times in the future.  Kirby Calvert argues on the Policy Options website that the target is a simple and positive message, but it can unnecessarily confuse the public, fostering a false sense that this market transformation can be driven politically. Instead he thinks cities should take a broader perspective, focusing on the energy transition as a whole.

 

Why cities should abandon the “100 percent renewable” target

Can we power our buildings, vehicles and industry entirely on renewable resources like the sun, wind and water? Should we? Hundreds of communities across the globe and five municipalities in Canada say yes and have established a formal target through their local governments to leave fossil fuels and nuclear generation behind in favour of a 100 percent renewable energy supply (100% RE). My hometown of Guelph, Ontario, recently agreed to add our city to this growing network and is now exploring how they will reach the goal by 2050.

Setting the 100% RE target is the easy part, but how do we actually get there? This question drives my career as a researcher and as an active participant in community energy planning. While the movement is laudable — there is no pathway other than 100% RE that leads to a clean, equitable and prosperous energy system — these targets have serious flaws and should be reconsidered.

Municipalities across Canada face two significant obstacles to achieving what they promise.

First, cities currently have very little regulatory authority over the sources of energy that give us electricity, heat and motorized transportation. Most of the cities that claim to have achieved 100% RE are referring to their electricity use only and are not including the energy they use for heat or transport. Electricity is lower-hanging fruit, and it is actually a relatively small portion of total energy use in a city. When we start to think about heating (which relies mostly on natural gas delivered through our furnaces) and transport (which relies mostly on gasoline and diesel), the challenge grows exponentially.

Technologies and business models are evolving to bring renewable options to users of heating and transport fuels, but the kind of structural change that is required to see that through is well beyond the control of municipal government. Provincial governments make decisions about energy supply and regulate energy system operators and distribution companies to operate pipelines and electricity grids. Even when a municipality is a sole shareholder of its local utility, the utility is tightly regulated and responds to provincial government directives, not to local government directives. In some cases, municipal governments have invested directly in local heating systems (for instance, as owners or equity investors in a district energy system), but even in those cases they are investing in the distribution of energy and have little control over the source of that energy.

Second, cities just don’t have the physical space to support their target. Studies have shown that the average city consumes at least twice as much energy as can be produced within city limits — in other words, the spatial concentration of energy use vastly exceeds the spatial concentration of renewable energy supply. For an entire city to be 100% RE, especially when we add heating and transport, will require the recovery of renewable energy in farmland, forests, lakes, oceans and other spaces far away from our borders.

The 100% RE target is a simple and positive message, but it can unnecessarily confuse the public, fostering a false sense that this market transformation can be driven politically. While having a network of municipalities step forward to declare their intent to achieve 100% RE might send some market signals, those signals are dependent on politically tenuous promises.

What’s more, history has proven that declarations are not necessary. All energy transitions — including the shift from horse and carriage to motor vehicles, and from steam power to the internal combustion engine — required smart, targeted public policy to facilitate them, but none of them happened just because someone stood up and declared the transition.

Certainly, municipal governments still have a role to play in facilitating a 100% RE future. A more effective and less politicized use of municipal staff time and council meetings is to leverage their real power and mandate to develop projects and programs that will generate the kinds of change required to meet a 100% RE future. There are many options:

  • helping utilities to deliver energy conservation and energy efficiency programs either through awareness-raising initiatives or, more directly, through by-law changes that enable unique financing options for homeowners, such as local improvement charges;
  • raising community bonds or reallocating capital expenses to invest directly into solar energy systems on their buildings, or to build electric vehicle charging facilities;
  • converting waste management and public transit fleets to run on electricity;
  • brokering relationships with utilities, landowners and the community at large to identify opportunities for generating local renewable energy beyond municipally owned land and infrastructure.

All of these actions fall directly in line with 100% RE, and in my experience, they are defensible even among individuals and groups that might object to their local council declaring the municipality a 100% RE city.

The 100% RE target is laudable but misses the point. The transition is picking up steam in the global marketplace, and changes in technologies and business models are making it more likely every day. So, the message to municipalities is simple: stop setting the 100% RE target. It is politically divisive and almost entirely outside of your sphere of influence. Instead, get to work facilitating the transition and ensuring that it benefits your community through targeted and politically defensible actions.

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