The push for clean energy is powering up

Photovoltaic modules capture sunlight. (Photo: foxbat, via Shutterstock)

Americans have grown accustomed to a parade of bad news on climate change coupled with a stream of  federal policy shifts designed to promote fossil fuels. But outside of the Beltway, in cities and towns across the country, the move to 100% clean energy is becoming a reality.

Dozens of cities and counties in California and elsewhere are already running on 100% clean electricity, and over 150 American cities and counties have set 100% clean energy goals. Meanwhile, the list of states committed to a 100% renewable energy future continues to grow.

The highest concentration of communities already powered by 100% carbon-free energy is in California.

The clean energy transition is being spearheaded by local leaders — the kind of leaders now seeking more local control over energy systems across California. More than 70 counties, cities, and towns are already powered by 100% clean energy, in states including Alaska, Kansas, and Texas. Their achievement is transformative, and provides lessons for achieving clean energy goals on a larger scale.

Clean energy communities are finding that the benefits of switching to 100% renewable energy – including local job creation, clean air, and climate resilience – outweigh any modest price increases on utility bills. And as solar, wind and battery storage prices continue to fall, the math continues to move in renewables energy’s favor. Across the U.S., large-scale renewable energy generation is now beating coal on cost.

The highest concentration of communities already powered by 100% carbon-free energy is in California. A paper to be released at the (Nov. 6) Summit on State & Local Progress Toward 100% Clean Energy enumerates more than 65 California cities and counties that have already reached the 100% milestone.

Researchers Kelly Trumbull and Julien Gattaciecca of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, which is sponsoring the summit, have found that all but two of those communities rely on an especially helpful tool —  a community choice aggregator — to access clean power. Community choice aggregators (CCAs) enable cities and counties to purchase clean electricity on behalf of their residents and businesses, in areas served by a traditional investor-owned utility.

CCAs have become a powerful vehicle for channeling community demand for clean energy. And while they are relatively new in California, they are growing fast. If trends continue, most California customers of investor-owned utilities will be served by a CCA within the next decade. And that would transform the state’s electricity sector.

First, we need to reform state and utility policies that prevent communities from expressing their demand for cleaner energy.

Already, California is likely to surpass its 2020 target of 33% renewable energy, driven in large part by local demand for clean energy and progressive utilities. But it’s not just California. Across the nation, communities are driving a shift away from fossil-fuel-based electricity. The Sierra Club has documented over 150 American cities and counties that have made 100% renewable energy commitments.

Local demand for clean energy has also spread to state capitols. This year alone, nine states and Puerto Rico have adopted laws or executive orders to transition to 100% clean electricity sources. These states joined early adopters Hawaii, California, and the District of Columbia for a total of thirteen 100% clean energy laws.

Many other states have adopted other renewable energy policies and goals. These states stretch from coast to coast, in every region of the U.S. The supporting legislators’ political leanings range from conservative to liberal, and every shade of purple in between.

Of course, meeting 100% clean energy targets at the state level will be more challenging than achieving 100% clean energy in a local community. Seriously scaling up renewable energy will require state and federal policy reforms as well as stakeholder collaboration.

First, we need to reform state and utility policies that prevent communities from expressing their demand for cleaner energy. The option to choose 100% clean energy should be available to every American, but currently CCAs are only allowed in eight states. Second, we need to modernize grid operations and increase grid connectedness, in order to integrate growing amounts of renewable energy.

Local communities are proving possible what once seemed impossible: cities and counties can run on 100% clean power. By achieving this goal today, local initiatives can light the way for the rest of the country. They can and should serve as inspiration to other cities, states, and the federal government to support 100% clean energy commitments, and to take bold action to achieve those goals.

Editor’s Note: JR DeShazo is director and Colleen Callahan is deputy director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, a policy-oriented research center uniting UCLA scholars with civic leaders to solve environmental challenges. 

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