How the world’s cities are transitioning to renewable energy

The world is in the process of transitioning to a low-carbon economy based on clean energy, to address the risks of climate change and create economic value in the new green industries of the future. It’s clear that cities are key to this transition.

As cities house over 50% of the world’s population and are responsible for 70% of the world’s energy-related CO2 emissions – their impact and influence is undeniable. Especially as the urban population is set to grow to 70% of the global total by 2050. No surprise that the role of cities and other subnational governments has been highlighted in the Paris Agreement. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) conference in Edmonton, Canada on 5th March 2018, specifically highlighted the vital role of cities in climate action.

As Kyra Appleby, Director of Cities at CDP says: “There is immense potential for them to lead on building a sustainable economy”.

At the same time, cities are vulnerable to climate change, and are already feeling the effects of related environmental problems such as air pollution and water scarcity. As energy costs rise, energy security is an increasing priority as well.

The rapid uptake of renewables has been accelerated by their dramatic drop in cost. According to the World Economic Forum, unsubsidized renewables were the cheapest source of electricity in 30 countries in 2017, and IRENA predicts renewables will be consistently more cost effective than fossil fuels globally by 2020. In this context, investing in renewable energy makes clear economic sense.

There is a growing momentum of the renewable energy cities movement, with cities around the world now aiming to switch from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Here in the UK, the UK100 network of local government leaders recently announced that over 80 UK towns and cities have committed to 100% clean energy by 2050, including Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and 16 London boroughs.

As this momentum builds, new data released by global environmental impact non-profit CDP shows that over 100 cities around the world now source the majority of their electricity from renewables, and that over 40 cities have already ramped that up to 100%.
The global picture: over 100 cities source the majority of their electricity from renewables

Cities are increasingly reporting that they are powered by renewable electricity. According to data released by CDP in the form of a digital map, over 100 cities now source at least 70% of their electricity from renewable sources such as hydro, geothermal, solar and wind.

The list includes large cities such as Auckland (New Zealand); Nairobi (Kenya); Oslo (Norway); Seattle (USA) and Vancouver (Canada), and is more than double the 40 cities who reported that they were powered by at least 70% clean energy in 2015.

CDP holds data from over 570 of the world’s cities, 100 states and regions and 6,300 companies. They disclose their environmental impacts and actions at the request of investors with $87 trillion in assets. CDP drives companies and governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, safeguard water resources and protect forests.

CDP’s 2017 data highlights how cities are stepping up action on climate change with a sharp rise in environmental reporting, emissions reduction targets and climate action plans since 2015, following the ground-breaking Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees.

Much of the drive behind city climate action and reporting comes from the 7,000+ mayors signed up to The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy who have pledged to act on climate change.

In the United States, 58 cities and towns have now committed to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy, including big cities like Atlanta (Georgia) and San Diego (California). Despite the lack of support from the federal government, US cities are stepping up.

Deep dive: Two cities leading the way on clean energy

Across the world, over 40 cities disclose they are sourcing 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. As others follow their lead, it’s useful to take a deep dive and examine two of them in more detail. Burlington in the US and Basel in Switzerland are showing what’s possible.

Burlington, USA

The largest city in the north-eastern state of Vermont, Burlington’s region is known for its stunning forests, maple syrup and mountainous skiing slopes. Though this city of 42,000 citizens is not large by US standards, it has garnered international attention for its world-leading achievements in urban sustainability.

Their biggest success: 100% of the city grid’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Not only is their electricity clean, but it’s affordable too. They haven’t raised energy rates in eight years.

As the first city in the US to make such a leap, there’s much we can learn from their experience as other cities follow their lead.

Where Burlington gets its electricity:

  • Biomass: sustainable local wood is used to power the McNeil Generating Station
  • Hydro: hydroelectric power plant on the Winooski River at the city’s edge
  • Wind: four large wind turbines on the nearby Georgia Mountain
  • Solar: rooftop solar PV arrays on the airport, high school and Burlington Electric Department

This pioneering city kicked off their clean energy journey back in 1978 when they replaced an aging coal plant with the 50-megawatt McNeil Generating Station. Half of the electricity goes to Burlington’s own citywide grid, with the remaining half used elsewhere. The 10-megawatt wind farm and various solar arrays boost the proportion of renewables in the city’s energy mix.

Then came the big milestone: In 2014, city voters approved a $12 million bond for the city’s energy department to purchase the 7.4-megawatt Winooski One Hydro Plant. And with that, Burlington became the first city in the US to power its electricity grid entirely from renewables.

The city is proud of its accomplishment, but it’s not stopping there. Burlington faces significant risks from climate change. Their two key industries – tourism and agriculture – are vulnerable to extreme weather, and the river that helps generate clean power is at risk of flooding.

The impact of Hurricane Irene in 2011 shows what’s at stake. Heavy rain storms damaged infrastructure, several key businesses and over 60 residential homes – resulting in high costs and loss of economic activity, not to mention severe disruption for citizens.

To make Burlington as resilient as possible, the city is now exploring what it would take to become totally zero-carbon. They’re investing in charging stations for electric vehicles, planting hundreds of urban trees, and developing plans to pipe steam from the biomass plant to heat downtown homes.

Basel, Switzerland

Basel, located on the banks of the river Rhine in north Switzerland, is the country’s third largest city. It’s renowned for its museums and home to the country’s oldest university, founded in 1460. It’s also a world leader in clean energy.

The city of Basel and its surrounding region of Basel-Stadt sources 100% of its electricity from renewables. The majority of its electricity is generated from hydropower, with 10% from wind and smaller contributions from biomass and solar. Basel’s public-owned energy company IWB only offers electricity from renewable sources, and it also has a district heating system run on geothermal and biomass. Basel-Stadt uses financial tools such as tax levies and incentives to boost clean energy production and energy efficiency projects across the region.

Together with the environmental and health benefits of clean energy, its progress has seen Basel race ahead of national policy. With its national energy plan ‘Energy Strategy 2050’, Switzerland is facing major changes ahead – Basel is very much showing the way for the rest of the country. The city highlights the importance of having a clear vision and strong political leadership to enable citizen buy-in for the transition to clean energy.

While Basel’s 100% renewable electricity is a huge achievement, they’re not stopping there. The city authority aims to get its own municipal emissions down to net zero by 2030. Going even further, the city authority passed a law in November 2016, which came into force in August 2017, with the headline target to reduce CO2 emissions per person from 4 tonnes today to 1 tonne by 2050.

Moving forward

It’s clear that, for both environmental and economic reasons, all cities need to ultimately transition to low-carbon clean energy systems. So where do they start?

The primary action for cities is to first understand their energy mix and overall environmental impact; which is why over 570 cities already disclose to CDP. Disclosure leads to transparency, knowledge and understanding. Then, once cities have this insight, they can make informed decisions about how to reach their goal.

The second action for cities is to set ambitious targets. Basel cites ‘political will and vision’ as vital. True vision is key, which is why it’s so positive to see the commitments to 100% renewables growing so fast.

“Reassuringly, our data shows much commitment and ambition”, says Kyra Appleby, Director of Cities, CDP: “Cities not only want to shift to renewable energy but, most importantly – they can. We urge all cities to disclose to us, work together to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and prioritize the development of ambitious renewable energy procurement strategies. The time to act is now.”

As the world transitions to a low-carbon economy, these 100 cities are leading the way.