100% Renewable commitments are becoming a common climate action strategy

Across the country, communities and businesses are signaling their commitment to climate action and a cleaner future by pledging to becoming 100% renewable. While their motivations are diverse, and the methods to achieving 100% renewable energy vary widely, the number of pledges continue to grow, and the effect that this will have on long-term climate impacts and emissions inventories is significant. A few of Lotus’ clients have committed or are considering committing to 100% renewable energy and this has inspired us to share some of what we have learned.

We would like to offer the following information and points of consideration for those communities and organizations that are interested in taking on this impressive commitment. This blog will be posted in two parts, where the first will provide an overview of what a 100% renewable goal means. The second post will detail what a roadmap to 100% renewable energy could look like and how your community can succeed in going 100% renewable.

What does ‘100% Renewable’ mean?

Through the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100% program, the Climate Reality Project’s 100% Committed program, and the RE100 initiative for businesses, the commitment to going 100% renewable is growing. While both the Sierra Club and the Climate Reality Project pledges are for a commitment to pursue 100% renewable energy in general, many communities see a move towards 100% renewable electricity as the first step in this process. It is important to note that the terms “100% Renewable Energy” and “100% Renewable Electricity” describe two different outcomes; and therefore, two different sets of strategies to achieve those outcomes. While the terms are often used interchangeably, “100% Renewable Electricity” refers specifically to the transition of the electricity sector to provide energy only from renewable resources (e.g. solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and battery storage). Taking this concept one step further, “100% Renewable Energy” refers to sourcing energy from all sectors from renewable resources—this includes the electricity, stationary fuel (i.e. natural gas and diesel), and transportation sectors. Many communities that have pledged to becoming 100% renewable are focusing on the electricity sector first. The Sierra Club recommends setting a goal of obtaining 100% renewable Electricity by 2035, and 100% Renewable Energy for all sectors by 2050. Further, the organization recommends including a local generation target, and focusing on collaboration with other local communities and public-private partnerships to achieve the goal.

It is further important to note that the transition to 100% renewable electricity and 100% renewable energy will be an important strategy for communities and businesses that are striving to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. While these efforts will not completely reduce emissions, the vast majority of emissions in the U.S. are a result of electricity consumption, which can be offset with renewable energy. In addition, as the electric grid becomes cleaner, stationary heating fuels (e.g. natural gas and propane) and mobile fuels (e.g. gasoline and diesel) can be replaced with electricity, further reducing building sector and transportation emissions.

By transitioning these resources to renewable energy, communities and businesses can see significant gains towards their emissions reductions targets.

Local communities are leading the way

Over 160 U.S. mayors or town/city managers have signed the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy pledge, and many other counties have made an equivalent local commitment. The factors that have led communities to make this commitment vary from energy independence and local economic development to climate commitment and action.

In Greensburg, Kansas, transitioning to 100% renewable energy was a logical step to ensure long-term community resiliency after the town was nearly leveled by a tornado in 2007. By rebuilding the town with a focus on energy efficiency, small-scale solar, wind, and geothermal the community achieved 100% renewable electricity in 2013. In return, the town has effectively harvested the wind that nearly destroyed it to rebuild itself stronger for future generations.

Larger communities are also pursuing and achieving 100% renewable goals as well: Aspen, Colorado, achieved 100% renewable electricity in 2015. By utilizing wind power, energy efficiency measures, hydro-power, a small amount of landfill gas, and small scale solar thermal, Aspen has lead the way in the transition to fully renewable electricity. For Georgetown, Texas, in the heart of oil country, the decision to commit to 100% renewable electricity stemmed from a desire to obtain long-term low-cost and low-risk energy for city municipal customers. The City-owned utility established a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) in 2008 of 30% by 2030 and in 2012 bumped that goal up to 100% when low-cost and low-risk solar and wind bids were presented that significantly beat out fossil fuel prices. In this drought-prone part of Texas, renewable energy has the added benefit that it does not require the large amounts of water for production that is typically required by traditional fossil fuels.

While some communities, like Ithaca, New York, are achieving their 100% renewable goals through the purchase of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) on the open market, others are taking a more direct approach. San Diego and San Jose are both working towards Community Choice Aggregation, whereby communities may buy and/or generate electricity for their communities by working directly with wholesale power providers. Others, like Burlington, Vermont, are encouraging energy efficiency and smart building processes while also pursuing renewable energy projects and policies. The switch to 100% renewable can save communities money as well: Burlington, which sources its power from 30% biomass woodchip burning, 20% landfill methane, wind, and solar, and 50% hydropower, anticipates that it will save $20 million over the next 20 years over the cost of traditional fossil fuels.