Celebrating 100: A Spotlight on 6 Leaders of 100% Renewable Cities — Episode 100 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Date: 25 Mar 2020 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

This week marks a milestone for the Local Energy Rules podcast: 100 episodes. Although the times are grim and uncertain, we hope you take refuge in these visions of a cleaner, more equitable future.

For our 100th episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, we compiled a highlight reel from the Voices of 100% series. This episode celebrates five cities that are working toward our vision: community-driven, equitable, 100% renewable energy economies. As the movement grows, there will only be more voices to share.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources, below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

John Farrell Hello. This is John Farrell, your host and director of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode is a milestone for the local energy rules podcast, episode 100, but it comes at a time of enormous social upheaval due to the Coronavirus Epidemic. We hope that wherever you’re listening, you’re in good health and good spirits. I know that some of us are lucky to be able to work from home, but I wanted to take a moment to thank those who cannot, from doctors and nurses to public works employees. I also wanted to acknowledge the many people who are losing their wages or their jobs as the in-person economy grinds to a halt. I feel fortunate to be weathering the storm at home, even though I’m taking a few more breaks than usual to help my kids do distance learning for school.
John Farrell So despite the epidemic looming in the background, please enjoy this 100th episode of Local Energy Rules. We’re sticking with the plan to give you the highlights of our Voices of 100% series, segments of our best interviews with city leaders about their efforts to secure a renewable energy future. This first segment is from Pueblo, Colorado. The town is similar to many other communities pursuing 100% renewable energy in that it doesn’t own its own electric utility. Additionally, significant rate increases and shutoffs have affected the town’s residents. In August, 2018, episode 60 of Local Energy Rules, I spoke with city council member Larry Atencio about the town’s commitment and why it’s considering taking over the electric utility to address this affordability crisis. In this segment, Larry explains how affordability is the motivation for pursuing renewable energy, that costs are high due to the utilities construction of a new gas power plant, and how the city expects to help folks in low income neighborhoods by using the savings from shifting city buildings to renewable energy.

So I am really excited to talk to you first of all, about what it is that motivated Pueblo to make a commitment to 100% renewable energy.

Larry Atencio I am a Pueblo City Councilman and I represent district two, which was made up of mostly low to moderate income individuals. And my thinking was they’re having a hard time with their electricity bills and their energy costs are sky high. We have the highest electricity costs in the state of Colorado here in Pueblo, Colorado. And my thinking was how do we relieve some of the pressure financially on low to moderate income people? And getting together with the Sierra club and with other environmental groups, we talked about 100% renewable energy and I thought that is going to be a great way to reduce energy costs, not only for my constituents but for the city as a whole. So that is the first thing that made me think about renewable energy to begin with. And then the 100% renewable per cities came up and I thought that was perfect. So I proposed the resolution to the city that Pueblo commit to 100% renewable.
John Farrell But in in that timeframe, I think you alluded to earlier that the electricity costs are the highest in the state. Is that a more recent phenomenon or was that true even before Black Hills took over?
Larry Atencio No, it, it, it came about when Black Hills took over. They built this new power plant, uh, a gas fired power plant outside of the city of Pueblo because, uh, they are the only electric provider for the city of Pueblo. So they had to, they literally had to build their own power plant to serve the city. Now the public utility commission of course gave them permission to recoup all of their, uh, costs. And that is what led to the high electricity bills for everyone.
John Farrell So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on in other places in Colorado. So Boulder, Colorado, University town, relatively progressive, has famously been in a seven year fight to take over its utility. They did a, and among other things, a feasibility study that suggested that by taking over the utility company, by making it a municipal utility, they could make the city’s electricity system more renewable and more affordable. I’m curious if you’ve had a lot of conversation yet about what strategies Pueblo could consider. You mentioned working with Black Hills around some low cost solar gardens, which I think sounds really interesting and I’m definitely gonna look to see how those develop. Are there other strategies that have been discussed in terms of projects that black Hills would build specifically for Pueblo or, or anything else?
Larry Atencio Yeah, the city of Pueblo we developed, we put together a electric utility commission to see whether it would be feasible for the city, of public municipalize, uh, co-chair of that committee. And we are looking into each and every possible combination or option that we could use to bring those, uh, electricity costs down for the city where our residents and for industry too, by the way, by going 100% renewable for instance, let me give you an idea. The city of Pueblo and all of its facilities, we will probably go 100% renewable first, city facilities within the next five years. Reducing the cost of energy for the city of Pueblo will give us money from the, uh, energy cost that we’re spending. Now. If we go renewable, our energy costs will be much less. We’ll be able to use that money in low income neighborhoods or we’ll be able to provide programs by which we can raise the income level or education for instance, or job training or whatever it might be. We might be able to have some money left over from our energy costs if we go 100% renewable to be able to put into the neighborhoods.
John Farrell That was Larry Atencio, city council member from Pueblo, Colorado and an excerpt from 60 of Local Energy Rules in August, 2018. Up next, we have a Texas city that already owned its electric utility and leverage that decision making power to contract for 100% wind and solar electricity in 2016. I spoke with mayor Dale Ross in July, 2018 for Local Energy Rules episode 58 about what motivated the city to go renewable. As he notes, the city aimed to mitigate the risks associated with fossil fuel price volatility and potential climate regulations, the longterm contracts for clean energy would he hoped ensure longterm affordability for the city’s residents and businesses.

I wanted to start off by asking you about how Georgetown managed to get ahead of the 69 other cities that have set a goal to be 100% renewable by getting all of its power from the wind and from the sun last year.

Dale Ross Well, one of the things that happened in 2016 is when we actually, yeah, when a hundred percent renewal are using 100% of renewable resources, what happened is we were coming to the end of a contract and we wanted to expedite closing out that contract. So you can’t just walk away from contracts. We wrote a big check because, uh, we found it the most important thing with us, it was a business business decision back in the day. And so what we decided was we wanted two things to happen. One, we want to do limit the volatility in the market in the short term. And we also wanted to have an energy source that mitigated regulatory and governmental risks. And the only thing that fit those two items was a wind and solar. So we bought our way out of our existing contract and signed a 20 to 25 year contract with Linden solar.

Uh, so we have, we know what our price is going to be all the way until the year 2041. And so cost certainty is certainly important to us and there is no car, there’s no escalators in this 20 to 25 year contracts that we’ve signed. So that’s why we decided to do it and that’s how we’re able to do it. At the same time that we were negotiating with Linden solar providers, we were also negotiating with natural gas providers. They would only commit to fixed pricing over seven years. And that didn’t meet our longterm strategy. We wanted 20, 25 year contracts.

John Farrell But let’s look at the big picture. The three years ago when Georgetown first made this commitment, ILSR took the time to analyze the costs of wind and solar across the country to get an estimate of what we thought Georgetown would be paying. And we found that there were hundreds of city owned utilities, uh, in a couple of dozen States that we thought could get similar prices for wind and solar energy. And we’ve actually just redone the analysis in concert with this podcast. What is it that you think stops those cities that can get economical energy from making the switch to renewable?
Dale Ross Well, one of the things is if you have existing contracts, you can’t just walk away from dollars. So say for example, if you were a municipality and you had a coal contract for 15 more years, I mean, you’d have to buy your way out of that contract. You can’t just walk from it. Um, but we are at the tipping point right now. Say for example, you can buy a wind energy for about $18 a megawatt compared to coal, which is over $25 a megawatt. So I think this is going to be an economic decision. And this is what the cities are gonna make the decisions based on. And what we’ve found out is once you win the economic decision, by default, you win the environmental decision, you know the environmental argument as well cause you get the best of both possible worlds. You get lowest pricing and you also get their energy supply. That’s very kind to the environment.
John Farrell So you’ve mentioned contracts again and I wanted to point out for our listeners that most utilities, uh, especially smaller ones, go in with other utilities together to do group purchases of electricity, uh, in order to get a better deal. A was Georgetown as well, part of a group purchase when it was previously getting its power. And, and how has that changed?
Dale Ross We were in a supply contract with the LCRA and one of those, one of the drivers is, you know, we had a conversation with them back in 2010 and we really wanted to go back then was they have 30% of our energy portfolio in renewables and they all, LCRA had no interest in having that amount to the portfolio. So what we decided we would get rid of LCRA is contract and then we would manage purchase power ourselves. And that’s when we came into these two contracts with Linden Solar.
John Farrell That was Dale Ross, mayor of Georgetown, Texas. And an excerpt from episode 58 of Local Energy Rules in July, 2018. The next interview features a novel approach to climate and energy planning determined to address the needs of its hardest hit communities. City leaders in Providence, Rhode Island flipped the planning process on its head. Leah Bamberger, the city’s sustainability director, explains that rather than put out a public meeting notice, they set out to deliberately recruit and support frontline community members in a dialogue to identify their most pressing problems. In this interview from December, 2019 Local Energy Rules episode 93, Leah explains how these discussions helped Providence shape an energy plan that gets at the underlying structural sources of climate pollution and addresses them head on.
Leah Bamberger Well, I think what really made this plan and makes this plan unique is, is our approach to developing it. And we often talk about in sustainability the need to focus on equity. And one thing that I’ve learned through this process, and this sounds like a no brainer, but uh, it, it really takes, it took a while to think in, which is if we want different outcomes, we have to take a different approach. And so when we talk about equity and we want as well outcomes adding, you know, a section on equity or you know, shifting the makeup, getting a more diverse constituent base is not going to result in a whole systems shift or you know, a completely different set of outcomes. And so what we did is we really flipped our engagement process on its head when we developed this plan. So we knew if we were to put out a broad call, say, Hey, we’re developing our climate action plan, we want to center equity in it, we’re going to make sure that’s emphasized in the process, and we had that big public meeting, we would get mostly the usual suspects and the voices that we are really trying to center from our frontline communities, our communities that are most impacted by the climate crisis, they would continue to be marginalized. So, uh, we instead, we had a very intentional process that thought to engage specifically and pretty much exclusively our frontline community members, so that the solutions that are developed in the plan are addressing their needs and they’re not continuing to be marginalized in that way in the process. So as a result, it takes a systems thinking and place based approach to, to that quote, really getting at some of the root causes. So when we center equity, when we, when we center frontline communities in these conversations, we’re not only talking about carbon pollution, but we’re talking about labor, we’re talking about health, we’re talking about gentrification, housing affordability.

And that’s where we really get at the, the, the systems level thinking. All those things are interconnected. And it’s particularly exciting doing this work here in Providence because Providence was really the birthplace of the industrial revolution. All of the, the challenges that we’re facing today, many of them started right here in our backyard. Uh, and it not only started with, you know, the mills and the industry coming in which ended up, you know, running on fossil fuels and, and meeting the uh, larger labor force. And, but it also started with, uh, you know, these were mills that were relying on cotton from the South that was extracted via slave labor. And that just really gets at the narrative of how all these things are connected. So when we’re talking about tackling climate change, we can’t just be talking about calculating greenhouse gas emissions and our carbon footprint and wedging our way down to zero. We have to be really thinking about the systems and structures that created this crisis in the first place. And that’s what I think this plan gets that, not because that was necessarily our intention, our intention was the center front line communities in the conversation. But because we did that, we ended up with a much more holistic approach and plan.

John Farrell And I should just for the benefit of folks who don’t live in this space, a little bit more in terms of frontline communities. In the climate justice plan, it talked about how you have an active port for example, and that there’s a lot of pollution near there. Is that kind of what you’re talking about, is people who live near that? Could you give a couple of specific examples to help people understand a little bit more about what we mean when we say frontline communities?
Leah Bamberger Yeah, I can give this specific definition that’s in the plan, but generally I say frontline communities, these are the people who are literally on the front of the climate crisis. So these are folks who are not only dealing with the impacts of industry today, so that could be the health impacts, it could be labor impacts, maybe they are working in industry and are exposed to process these and the impacts and the pollution as a, as a labor or they live near these polluting facilities and they’re dealing with it in everyday kind of community health.
John Farrell So there is a really strong focus in the climate justice plan on co-pollutants. So this is like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, basically a lot of the components that we think of as smog or local air pollution. Why is there such an important focus on that when the global climate challenge is about greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide?
Leah Bamberger Yeah, so this focus really evolves again from our process and some of the things that we heard and the challenges that not only we heard from community members but we see in data, right? We look at asthma rates in the city and how those disproportionally impact frontline community members. And as we try to, as we’re working to address the global climate crisis here in Providence, I think it’s important to remember that, you know, Providence, we could become carbon neutral tomorrow and it’s not going to, it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of global emissions, which is not to undermine our impact or say we shouldn’t care about these issues. I think there’s obviously, you know, cities around the world are taking action and that is really important as a driver of change. But I think that what we’re trying to do here is kind of think of it rather than an either or, but a both and. So we can solve for the health crises that are, a product of climate change, as we reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If we make both a priority. And what we’re saying here in Providence is like, yes, you want to reduce emissions, but let’s start with emissions that are causing the most harm in our frontline communities so we can prioritize their health as a first step in meeting our long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals.
John Farrell That was Leah Bamberger, Director of Sustainability for the city of Providence, Rhode Island, and an excerpt from episode 93 of Local Energy Rules published December, 2019.

This next interview takes us down South to discuss a bright green goal in a deep red state. In September, 2019 I spoke with mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina about his city’s 100% renewable energy pledge. Unlike other leaders, he emphasized the public health and economic development opportunities as the main motivation for Columbia’s pledge. He suggested that clean energy pledges don’t require progressive populations, but rather a sense of trust in city leadership that can be cultivated by being a good steward of its resources.

What is it that makes 100% renewable energy so important and why is Columbia made a commitment to 100% renewable energy?

Stephen Benjamin I love being mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. I’m a third term mayor. I am a husband, a child of God, and I’m a father and raising two beautiful young girls in the world in which we live right now, it really helps you gain perspective that we are indeed stewards of this incredible earth God’s given us. And it’s wonderful to have young voices, 14 and 12 informing my worldview every day that daddy, you’re, um, you’re protecting this earth for us, it’s inspired me to get active, not only in pursuing a, just a thoughtful and smart, clean energy strategy that means great jobs here in the Midlands, but also just wanting to show some leadership for similarly situated communities all across the South where sometimes it’s tough for a thoughtful, progressive policies that break through. We decided that we wanted to be a model. So we’ve been pushing here locally because of those reasons.
John Farrell Are there ways specifically that Columbia is focused on either racial or economic equity as part of this goal?
Stephen Benjamin Well, you know, most of our focus is really been around weatherizing homes. It really, some folks, their power bills are, they dwarf or rent payments and mortgage payments and some of our communities where our homes may not have been built well have deteriorated over the years. We’ve used some of our city general fund dollars and some of our community development block grant fund dollars in very creative ways of uh, put a few million dollars actually into a one program, a maintenance assistance program. And another program called the PEAR program. The first program focused on the homeowners, a second one on landlords that sought to help people weatherize their homes and also deliver, um, solar panels as well. Just focused on people spending less of their very finite income on their energy bills. We saw some success there. We put a couple of million dollars in in that program and I expect we’ll do more of that over time. You know, the, uh, the focus on community of color and sometimes depending on where you are in, in the, in the country that you’ll see some very clear socioeconomic lines that parallel race. It’s important that we be very laser-like enough focus on, uh, on, uh, on attacking those, uh, those shortcomings in our community. We have to make sure that we’re building cities for all people. If we don’t do that, then we lose what makes cities special. I’m a mayor. I’m a former president of the U.S. council of mayors, but I, I tell people I’m a lifetime president of the mayor’s mutual admiration society. I do believe that that the role of the mayor, the role of city leaders is making sure that, that we are indeed cities for all people. That we don’t become these incredibly gerrymandered communities, have very specific interests in that we make sure that we speak to the needs of all of our citizens and that requires a great degree of intentionality. We’ve been able to see that with some very specific programs. Now we just need that dedication to send more resources to those and watch them grow.
John Farrell So I really liked this quote that you had in a story about Columbia’s commitment a couple of years ago that you live in this F-150 community. In other words, you know, it’s not a typical liberal city, not at all a liberal state. Does that perspective give you any particular advice that you might have for mayors of other cities in conservative states? Either about approaching this idea of setting a goal for 100% renewable energy or even like in the implementation phase, how that might be different than say a city like Chicago or Minneapolis, where Democrats are the overwhelming favorite politically speaking. Do you have advice for those communities about how they might approach this differently?
Stephen Benjamin No, I just encourage people to dialogue with your citizens to focus on the issues that are most important to them right now. Let me think. Goodness, we’re, for most people who are thinking and who care, we realize that we are having a significant adverse impact on public health. On the health of cities and the world in which we live and that communities that really just grabbed the bull by the horns and decided they’re going to lead, well, not only see improved public health, but you’ll see increased economic opportunity. You’ll see the hundreds of thousands of new jobs and clean energy make themselves available with good policy making. You’ll see significant economic investment and job creation that if you’re going to potentially look at deploying additional capital resources, that the ability to access the capital markets is more favorable now than it has been in generations.  So the lowest cost of debt, if you’re gonna, uh, issue bonds maybe to help meet those goals that the time is right and that you lead by, by speaking to people’s values, you lead by showing them that you’re always going to be a good steward of their money and resources. I, I can’t speak enough about fiscal stewardship. It is core to who we are here in the South. And I’ve learned that if you take care of people’s money, they gave you a lot of latitude to be downright creative about how you deliver goods and services to them. And that’s been kind of core to who we are and why not only clean energy, but in a number of other areas. I won’t, I won’t digress, but thoughtful regulations and rules around guns and gun ownership or investments in the arts that usually serve as a, as a, as a lightning rod, maybe in Congress, we’re able to do those things here locally because we’re good stewards of people’s money and we think big. We speak to building a community that everyone wants to live in and we’ve been able to find some, um, some unanimity of purpose as a result of it.
John Farrell That was mayor Steven Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, and an excerpt from episode 86 of Local Energy Rules published September, 2019. Before we move on to the final excerpt, I should add that mayor Benjamin talked about the opportunity to borrow money to invest in green infrastructure, especially at a time of historically low interest rates. It’s a tactic that few cities have yet employed for clean energy. Our final segment in this 100th episode comes from Burlington, Vermont and this interview from November, 2019 I spoke with the city’s mayor, Miro Weinberger, and general manager of the city owned electric utility Darren Springer. They explained why having a city owned utility was essential in achieving their 100% renewable electricity goal and how the rules should encourage utilities to jump from their monopoly regulated space in electricity to be upstart entrepreneurs in electric transportation and electric home heating and water heating.

You know, as I mentioned in the introduction, we’ve been interviewing dozens of cities about them making commitments and now pursuing efforts to get to 100% renewable electricity and we’re really excited to talk to folks with the city that already accomplished this goal five years ago. I guess one thing I’m really curious about, because we have so many cities across the country, different sizes, different States, how important was it to reaching that goal that Burlington is served by a city owned utility? And Miro, I was hoping maybe you could take a stab at this.

Miro Weinberger Well, I think it was maybe possible to do this or a different structure, but probably would have been much less likely. I think it’s not an accident that it was a city with a publicly owned utility that got there first. And I say that because, you know, I’ve come to think there were really two essential ingredients to reaching the goal. One was political will. It was a decision back in 2004, first for the city to stop purchasing nuclear energy and to replace it with a goal of getting to a hundred percent renewables. That was the essential first step, that she was only buying approximately 25% renewables at that time. And in 2014 a decade later, uh, I had the really privileged honor of being the mayor as we completed that journey and purchased a hydroelectric facility that got us over the final, that that milestone, that threshold, that political will was essential. It was sustained throughout that decade period of time. The other element of it was excellent technical expertise at the Burlington Electric Department. I think with a city owned utility, the directness of uh, of setting a goal that um, you know, is it some level of political, uh, is easier to achieve than probably would have been likely in a some kind of corporate setting where you have to balance that kind of goal, um, maybe more explicitly or in different ways against a shareholder profits and, and whatnot. So I think it’s no accident.
John Farrell How is the city going to make sure that low income folks aren’t left behind? Maybe they rent rather than own their home or maybe they don’t have the money up front to invest in energy improvements. Are there specific ways that the city is addressing equity in this net zero goal beyond an upfront incentive?
Miro Weinberger Yeah, there’s quite a number of steps that we’re taking. Equity is very much on our minds as we’ve been proceeding down this path. Just last night at the city council, our council took an important step forward and endorsed one of the strategies that we released as part of the roadmap that would require all rental properties in Burlington to be properly weatherized over the next, we haven’t set the timeline exactly yet, but it’s probably going to be over the next four, four or five years or so. Right now we have a situation where, and at least a, we estimate about 40% of the rental properties, we have just a really deficient insulation weather stripping and the tenants pay the bills and they pay very high utility bills or heating bills. As a result, we’re going to make building property owners bring their properties up to proper standard in a short period of time and those, those bills will fall dramatically. We have rolled out a variety of incentives that are aimed at really making sure that these technologies are not only available to households that can go out and buy latest model Teslas. We actually, as part of the roadmap, have a new incentive that patrons are starting to take advantage of that allows used electric vehicles and hybrids to qualify for these incentives. As the Burlington electric department is offering, we think that’s going to significantly expand the number of households that can access electric vehicles. We have other efforts like that in the heat pump side, but I mean big picture. I think what we also need to remember in this is that we, we are doing this, we are pushing so hard to move in this direction because we have a climate emergency and the households that are going to be disproportionately impacted by that climate emergency as it manifests itself in the years ahead. Our low and moderate income households, wealthy households, well off households are always going to be able to essentially buy their way out of the worst impacts of, of any disaster and that that is a basis for our work is fundamentally this is aimed at ensuring that we avoid these terrible changes to our planet that are coming, that are going to hit low and moderate income households first.
John Farrell So knowing what you’ve already been through in terms of the transition to a hundred percent renewables and then laying out this roadmap, what advice would either of you have for the other a hundred plus cities that have already made this a hundred percent renewable electricity commitment or major climate goals, commitments, and can they do it without a city owned utility? And Miro, if you want to go first, but Darren, I interested in hearing your advice as well for other cities.
Miro Weinberger So you know, again going back to the the Burlington story in terms of getting to the a hundred percent renewable, I really continue to see two essential ingredients of it. The first and largest, most significant ingredient is political will and making that decision as a community that you want to achieve this kind of change. Once a community has committed to that, I think this is possible anywhere. Is it easier? Again, I think we started the conversation by saying I think that the nature of publicly owned utilities, I mean Darren is sitting right here at the table with me. He is a mayoral appointee. It is easier for a community that has that kind of structure, I think to move forward with these kind of societal goals. But it is by no means impossible for private utilities to achieve the same results of course. And there certainly are many ways in which those utilities can be influenced and can be urged and mandated into pursuing the same type of outcomes. We have a great example of that here in Vermont. The largest electric utility in the state is not the Burlington electric department. It’s something called Green Mountain Power. They are an investor owned utility and they have perhaps been even more aggressive than BED has been over a longer period of time at embracing innovation and taking provocative steps to move towards climate goals. So it’s certainly possible in different structures. I think people just have to kind of do the political analysis. They have to map it out, they have to figure out where the pressure points are, what the levers are to bring about change with their utility and they can get there in any system
John Farrell And Darren, advice that you might have?
Darren Springer Yeah, I think, um, one of the interesting things to me about this net zero roadmap effort is having such a, a big public release. I’ve had anecdotal examples when I go to the coffee shop, when I’m talking to my neighbors, people who have taken in what this goal is and have embraced it and are thinking about different things in their own life. Should we get heat pumps? Should we, uh, get an EV? Should I take the bus more? Should I look at getting an electric bike, for example? I’ve heard all of those conversations. So I think for communities just setting the goal and getting it out there that that’s a shared goal as the mayor talks about with political will is a really powerful tool. I think on the utility side, I agree completely that there are opportunities for innovation with investor owned utilities as well as public power as well as cooperatives. Green mountain power is a great example. In Vermont, we’ve got great utilities doing work. I think one of the challenges that needs to be looked at is utility regulation. We in Vermont have a creative regulatory structure that allows our utilities to make investments in rebates and incentives and programs that help reduce fossil fuel use in the heating and transportation sectors. I think as a nation we want our utilities to compete because we have a cleaner source of energy generally speaking than petroleum or you know, other fossil fuels. We want our utilities to compete for market share with EVs and with cold climate heat pumps and we want regulatory structures that are going to properly incentivize that competition. Utilities are regulated monopolies when it comes to providing electric service, but in the transportation sector for example, we’re essentially upstarts that are competing against an entrenched industry with a lot of capital available. So I think we need utility regulatory structures around the country that match the ambition that we have to decarbonize through electric technologies.
John Farrell That was Mayor Miro Weinberger and Burlington Electric Department General Manager Darren Springer. They joined me for episode 90 of Local Energy Rules in November, 2019.

Thank you so much for listening to the 100th episode of Local Energy Rules. Have a story you think we should cover? Send us an email at podcast@ilsr.org. Like the Voices of 100% series? Don’t worry, we have more interview plans in the hopper. Want to support the development of Local Energy Rules and more excellent podcasting like this? Make a donation at ilsr.org/donate. I’m John Farrell, director of the energy democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Climate Goals for All Utility Types

The Voices of 100% series has featured 18 cities from 16 states. Each city differs in its size, density, and utility type. Although these differences may affect their goals and the timelines by which they are able to achieve them, any city can aspire to provide 100% renewable energy — regardless of how much local control it has over a utility.

In the second episode of the series (and first of this podcast), Farrell interviews Larry Atencio, a City Council Member of Pueblo, Colo. Pueblo gets its electricity from the investor-owned Black Hills Energy, which bought out the previous bankrupt utility. Atencio describes how Black Hills took over, built a gas-fired power plant, and raised prices for customers. Although Pueblo has some oversight over the utility in the form of Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission, the commission approved the gas plant and rate increase. Atencio and the City began to look at options to reduce these prices.

After considering municipalization, the city landed on renewable energy as the best way to save money. Attencio was the one to propose the 100% resolution to the council.

We might be able to have some money left over from our energy costs, if we go 100% renewable, to be able to put into the neighborhoods.

– Larry Atencio

Using Local Authority to Reach the 100% Goal

In contrast to Pueblo, Georgetown, Tex. owns its electric utility. In fact, because of local ownership, the City began providing 100% renewable electricity in 2016. Farrell asks Mayor Dale Ross about how Georgetown was able to achieve this goal in the very first Voices of 100% episode.

Georgetown’s achievement was celebrated by environmentalists, but the city did not switch to wind and solar because of their lower carbon footprint. Rather, the decision was an economic one. As the city-owned utility had expiring contracts with its power providers of the time, it became apparent that wind and solar were the cheapest power source. Plus, they could sign long-term contracts that would ensure stable prices long into the future.

What we decided was we wanted two things to happen. One, we want to limit the volatility in the market in the short term. And we also wanted to have an energy source that mitigated regulatory and governmental risks. And the only thing that fit those two items was wind and solar.

– Dale Ross

Centering Frontline Communities in Climate Planning

In the 17th episode of the Voices of 100% series, Providence Director of Sustainability Leah Bamberger explains how her Rhode Island city upended the typical city planning process. It reflects the power of cities to focus on what their residents care about most, even when holding goals in common. She stresses the value of a “systems thinking” approach and intentionally reaching out to stakeholders.

Before embarking on an implementation plan for Providence’s climate goals, the city created a racial and environmental justice committee to serve as the “steering committee” for the city’s work. With the help of the committee, the city was able to define what a frontline community is in Providence and the energy issues that most affect these communities: working conditions, housing affordability, and public health.

We can’t just be talking about calculating greenhouse gas emissions and our carbon footprint and wedging our way down to zero. We have to be really thinking about the systems and structures that created this crisis in the first place. And that’s what I think this plan gets at, not because that was necessarily our intention, our intention was the center frontline communities in the conversation, but because we did that, we ended up with a much more holistic approach and plan.

– Leah Bamberger

A Stewardship Appeal for Any Political Climate

Although 100% renewable pledges are prevalent in blue states like California and Massachusetts, saving energy costs and improving public health are apolitical. These are the reasons why Columbia, S.C., Mayor Stephen Benjamin made a commitment to 100% clean and renewable energy in 2017. Benjamin talks about his decision to take action on climate in the South in a 2019 interview for Local Energy Rules.

Benjamin cares deeply for his family, city, and community. He believes in being a good steward of Columbia’s resources, and because of this, residents trust him to address health and equity issues in the city. He committed to 100% renewable energy because he knew it would create economic opportunity in Columbia. As the city approaches this goal with intentionality, Benjamin hopes Columba will become one of many “cities for all people.”

We’re able to do those things here locally because we’re good stewards of people’s money and we think big. We speak to building a community that everyone wants to live in and we’ve been able to find some unanimity of purpose as a result of it.

– Stephen Benjamin

Utilities Can Be Entrepreneurs

Having already achieved the goal of 100% renewable electricity, Burlington, Vt. leaders set a new one: net zero energy. Like Georgetown, Burlington owns its electric utility. In a 2019 interview, Mayor Miro Weinberger and Burlington Electric General Manager Darren Springer discuss completing the city’s goal and setting another.

Mayor Weinberger oversaw the hydro-electric energy purchase that put Burlington over its 100% renewable threshold, but he acknowledges that the drive for clean energy started long before he was in office. With public support and a utility that is accountable to the public, it was only a matter of time before Burlington reached that milestone. Now, Weinberger and the city are developing programs that ensure no one is left behind in the transition to a clean energy economy.

I think it’s not an accident that it was a city with a publicly owned utility that got there first. And I say that because I’ve come to think there were really two essential ingredients to reaching the goal. One was political will… The other element of it was excellent technical expertise at the Burlington Electric Department.

– Miro Weinberger

As the General Manager of Burlington Electric, Springer works so that utility innovation can keep up with the city’s ambition. Since it is a public utility, Burlington Electric works very closely with the city of Burlington. However, Springer sees opportunities for other utility types to step up as well:

Just setting the goal and getting it out there, that that’s a shared goal… is a really powerful tool. I think on the utility side, I agree completely that there are opportunities for innovation with investor owned utilities as well as public power as well as cooperatives.

– Darren Springer

Episode Notes

Find the full interviews that are featured in this episode:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 19th episode of our special  Voices of 100%series, and 100th of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update


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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.