When looking for model cities using renewable energy, environmentalists often point to those within the Nordic region of Europe. But the U.S. is starting to catch up.
According to the Institute for Energy Research, a 2015 study showed that roughly 10% of the total U.S. energy supply comes from renewable sources. Many cities already have plans to convert to 100% renewables in the near future — and four cities already have been successful in doing so.
Why make the switch? With Climate Central reporting that the 10 hottest years globally, all of which have occurred since 1998, we have reached a pivotal moment in history. It’s becoming more and more obvious that human activities have caused a dramatic change in the global climate. Some of the damage already may be done but it is up to our generation to put us on a better path. And luckily, we are starting to see these changes happen here in the U.S.
The first U.S. city to reach 100% clean energy was Greensburg, Kansas. However, it took a traumatic incident in order for this city to evolve. With a population of only 771 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Greensburg is as small-town-America as it gets. The name may sound familiar because in 2007 the town was hit by a major tornado, which destroyed 95% of the town and resulted in 11 deaths.
During reconstruction, the city council decided that the entire town would be run on green-energy, adopting the motto: “Rebuilding...Stronger. Better. Greener." As of 2013, the city’s energy comes from a 12.5 megawatt wind facility.
The story of Greensburg is somewhat symbolic. It paints a picture of what the future holds if humans around the world continue down a path of environmental exploitation. With the disappearance of the polar ice caps and destruction of the world's coral reefs, humans have no choice now but to evolve.
Another small city that has reached 100% clean energy comes as no surprise: Aspen, Colorado. As a ski resort town, Aspen’s entire economic success rides on the environment. Aspen’s Utilities and Environmental Initiatives director David Hornbacher said, “…we are powered by the forces of nature, predominantly water and wind with a touch of solar and landfill gas."
The Aspen Times reports that prior to the switch to clean energy, the town already was running on 75% to 80% renewable energy.
Burlington, Vermont — a city of more than 42,000 — also has achieved 100% renewable energy. According to The Boston Globe, the Burlington Electric Department had purchased a hydroelectric plant on the Winooski River. The Burlington Electric Department with the Washington Electric Cooperative collectively now supply the city with 100% renewable sources.
The manager for Burlington Electric, Ken Dolan, said, “The transition in thought from 2004 to 2008 was ‘We want to do this’ to ‘This actually makes economic sense for us to do this.’”
The Boston Globe also reports Vermont is on a statewide mission to push for 90% renewable energy for electric, heating, and transportation by 2050.
Looking toward Texas, it would seem very unlikely that this oil-rich state would harbor one of the largest cities to reach 100% renewable energy, however Georgetown, home to some 67,000, has done just that.
A city that lies about 30 miles north of Austin, decided to make the switch after their power contract was up in 2012, according to Ari Shapiro from NPR. Shapiro reported city managers came to realize that wind and solar energy are much more predictable in prices, compared to that of oil and gas.
Surprisingly, the switch to renewables was due in part to Rick Perry, who implemented changes to Texas’ electrical grid, allowing Georgetown to receive its energy from wind farms in West Texas.
Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross said in the NPR interview, “It's a great economic development tool because there's a lot of high-quality companies in this country that have robust green energy policies.”
So while the switch to renewables was motivated by economic factors, Georgetown demonstrates that renewable energy can be a better economic decision than fossil fuel sources.
The switch to renewable energy is not an easy one. Each U.S. city has its own unique circumstances and there is not one set path in seeking green sustainability. Greensburg, Aspen, Burlington, and Georgetown have showed us that the switch is not impossible, and in some cases it’s even beneficial for the town’s economy.
According to Business Insider, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose in California; Rochester, Minnesota; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and East Hampton, New York, all have adopted plans to make the switch to 100% renewable energy within the next 20 years. What all these cities have in common is that the push to go green is local. While the federal government may not be passing renewable energy legislation anytime soon, citizens can motivate their local governments to begin the switch themselves.