U.S. cities gear up for renewable power

 —  Article by William Polk
city view of Chicago river and buildings
Image credit: Shutterstock

Growing numbers of U.S. cities are turning to renewables for their future energy needs, with ambitious commitments to power public buildings from sustainable sources.

From St. Petersburg, Florida and Atlanta in the southeast, to Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago in the Midwest, to Oakland and San Diego on the west coast, dozens of municipalities are making pledges to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in city buildings.

Chicago, the largest city to make such a pledge, plans to power all city properties with wind and solar energy by 2025, equating to more than 900 buildings. Atlanta has committed to reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, but municipal buildings must reach that goal by 2025. Las Vegas’ city government functions completely on solar and hydroelectric power sources, and casinos are starting to use photovoltaics to boost energy savings.

“It’s a significant statement for a city like Chicago to commit to power all city properties with renewable energy,” says Christian Beaudoin, JLL’s Director of Research in the U.S. “Municipalities are moving in this direction and, at some point in the not-too-distant future, this will be standard for cities across the country.”

Renewable energy is trending

In May a group of U.S. mayors announced a Mayors for 100 percent Clean Energy initiative that encourages other cities to shift to sustainable energy sources. It builds on the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, which aims to achieve 100 percent renewable energy nationwide by 2050.

“Businesses started this trend through commitments such as RE100, in which companies are encouraged to set a public goal to procure 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by a specific year,” says Keara Fanning, JLL’s Midwest Sustainability Practice Lead.

“These latest commitments by municipalities will continue stimulate growth in renewable energy through the purchase of renewable energy credits as well as increased on site solar and wind generation.”

Challenges to going green

These commitments do present a few key challenges for cities, however. There can be large costs involved in setting up photovoltaic installations while renewable energy credits would also need to find be accounted for in future budgets.

The current political climate, where the Trump administration is in favor of traditional energy sources such as coal, may make it more difficult as well, although some of the U.S. cities have made renewable energy commitments with bi-partisan support.

And while making pledges is a positive step, states need to uphold these commitments, which in turn would result in an increase of renewable energy sources in the energy grid and lower costs. “It still has to make economic sense,” Fanning says.

But with the RE100, the transformation of the U.S., and therefore the global, energy market to renewable sources will likely accelerate. The private sector accounts for approximately half the world’s electricity consumption. For a growing number of multi-national companies with multi-billion dollar revenues, committing to 100 percent renewable energy is becoming the norm. Microsoft, for example, has been powered by 100 percent renewable energy since 2014, while household names as diverse as General Motors, Facebook and Nike are all working towards green targets.

“Renewable energy will continue to be a key area of focus for companies interested in contributing to a low-carbon, sustainable future,” says Fanning. “We anticipate more companies and more municipalities making these types of commitments moving forward.”

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