Urban Adventures: Green Energy Starts in the Cities

Recently, a variety of conferences in Washington, D.C., have sought to examine the different paths that Germany and the United States have taken in climate and energy policy, focusing on German “best practices” that can serve as examples for the U.S. On September 13, AICGS’s Transatlantic Climate and Energy Dialogue brought together experts from the two countries to discuss climate and energy actions on both sides of the Atlantic.

America's grassroots: green cities and counties – Flickr Creative Commons / Annie in Beziers

The conference panelists illustrated what can be achieved at the municipal level at a time when climate legislation is stuck at the federal level. The lesson of the day? Let’s start the green movement at the local level, then work successively up to the state and federal levels. Presenters pointed to four promising U.S. examples:

In 2009, Loudon County, Virginia, launched an energy strategy that creates a 30-year roadmap for the building and transportation sectors, renewable energy usage, and overall energy use, distribution, and supply. Loudon’s 2040 goals include reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 22 percent from today’s level and lowering total energy use 21 percent. Given that the region’s population is expected to grow 70 percent by then, the ambitiousness of the plan becomes clear. On a per-resident basis, this means reducing emissions from 14.2 tons in 2009 to 6.6 tons in 2040.

In 2008, the city of Boulder, Colorado, became the nation’s first smart-grid city. Energy provider Xcel Energy has installed a fully interconnected system that includes smart metering as well as a web portal for residents providing detailed information on their energy use—an important measure for fostering behavioral change. Boulder has also boosted the integration of wind and solar power as well as the enhancement of electric vehicles.

In addition to these striking examples, Montgomery County, Maryland, recently enacted an energy tax that charges residents 1.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and 11.5 cents per therm of natural gas. The tax came into effect on July 1, 2010. Before the adoption of the tax, residents had to pay less than half the current amount for electricity and only 4 cents per therm of natural gas. Both changes are expected to lead to shifts in energy consumption and thus a significant reduction in GHG emissions. In addition, Montgomery County imposed a carbon tax on a local power plant.

The AICGS conference focused heavily on Arlington County, Virginia, which is currently working on a 40-year community energy plan (CEP). Arlington’s leadership dates back to 2007, when the county introduced its Fresh AIRE (Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions) project focused on cutting local government emissions 10 percent by 2012 compared to 2000 levels.

Arlington’s CEP is being prepared by a “Green Ribbon” task force that includes citizens, property owners, industry representatives, government officials, and regional authorities. The task force’s work is supported by a Technical Working Group (TWG) made up of experts on a wide range of issue areas.  If everything proceeds as planned, the CEP will be adopted by the County Board in the first quarter of 2011.

Arlington’s CEP is focused on improving the county’s energy efficiency, with an emphasis on more efficient buildings and transportation. Further, the CEP considers the use of waste-heat recovery (combined heat and power systems, or CHP) and examines options for integrating renewable energy sources. Finally, the task force will rethink Arlington’s energy distribution.

The initiatives being pursued in these four cities and counties represent only tiny green spots on the U.S. map, but they represent a step in the right direction at a time when reasons for optimism are being desperately sought.

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