The new power generation: An interview with Ready for 100
The number of renewable cities, driven by forward-thinking communities with a desire for clean energy, is on the rise. Energy Digital speaks to Jodie Van Horn, Director of Ready for 100, part of the United States’ largest and most influential environmental agency, Sierra Club.
Renewable cities are here. Around the world, the prospect of the largest urban centres being entirely powered by renewable energy is fast becoming a reality. Driven by the lower costs of renewables, the safer prospects that such power sources offer and a tangible shift in people power and societal thinking, there are now more than 100 cities worldwide powered primarily by renewable energy.
For places such as Seattle, Vancouver, Oslo, Auckland and Nairobi, that means receiving at least 70% of their overall energy from renewable sources. In a world where fossil fuels still, to a large extent, dominate the global energy mix, that’s an incredible figure in itself. Some cities, however – Reykjavik in Iceland, Basel in Switzerland and Burlington in the US – currently run on 100% renewable energy.
It’s a trend that’s showing every sign of gathering pace, too. In 2015, for example, the number of cities reaching that 70% mark was 42. Today, it’s 570.
“Cities are leading the global shift to 100% renewable energy,” says Jodie Van Horn, Director of Ready for 100. Part of the United States’ largest and most influential environmental agency, Sierra Club, Ready for 100 is a national campaign that’s working to move away from fossil fuels towards a more equitable and just economy powered by 100% clean, renewable energy.
“Renewable energy is cheaper, safer and cleaner than fossil fuels, and people across the globe are demanding a shift to 100% clean, renewable energy,” she explains. “City leaders know that moving to 100% renewable energy will protect us from pollution, create jobs and new economic opportunities and ensure that all people have the access to affordable energy.”
Drivers for change
The renewable city, then, is the product of a number of factors that have combined to create the future of urban power generation. Naturally, cost plays a significant factor. Van Horn explains that the price of solar, for example, has dropped by as much as 80% since 2008 with the cost of wind power 41% lower in that same timeframe. “In January in the States, new record low prices were announced for both wind and solar,” she adds. “This trend means that we are never going back to relying on dirty and increasingly expensive fossil fuels.”
Cost aside, there’s considerable weight behind the idea that this shift to renewable cities is driven by something more important: community. What is a city, after all, if not a collection of individuals sharing their lives together? Understand that and it’s easy to appreciate that a driver for this growth is pressure from urban and local communities to create a cleaner future.
“Throughout history, ‘people power’ has driven change on every scale, from community improvements to mass movements. The same is now true as we discuss the shift towards a clean and just energy economy,” Van Horn highlights.
“Cities have reasons to pursue a goal of 100% clean energy, but perhaps the biggest reason is that local officials know it’s what people want. A majority of Americans want to live in a society powered by cleaner, healthier sources of energy like wind and solar.”
It’s the reason why, says Van Horn, that across the US from California to the heart of Texan oil country, cities are seeing a switch to clean, renewable energy. Historically, she says, decisions about the country’s energy policy have been the preserve of the corporate boardroom or venues with no public participation.
“The movement is growing neighbourhood by neighbourhood, city by city, and state by state,” she adds, “in an effort to not only transform how we power our society, but who has the power to make energy decisions that impact our lives. The transition to 100% clean energy is an opportunity to put power back in the hands of local families, businesses and residents.”
Working together for change
People power, then, is firmly at the forefront of this staggering growth in renewable cities. And there’s little doubt that all individual commitment to clean energy – think rooftop solar in offices or residential buildings – helps to “decentralise and distribute the benefits of ownership to residents and local business,” says Van Horn.
But there too is a wider requirement for the industry, whether renewable or fossil fuel organisations, to work together to achieve this. Large cities and urban areas naturally represent a high percentage of any major utility provider’s overall retail sales, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for change for providers. In the US, as Van Horn explains, the continued growth of customer preference for 100% clean energy is bringing many major electric utilities on board in working with cities to achieve change.
“Just this month, the city of Denver and Xcel Energy entered into an agreement to work together in order to boost the city’s use of clean, renewable energy. It comes after local community leaders and activists across Denver have been calling for the city to move to 100% clean energy. The utility has entered into similar agreements with other 100% clean energy committed communities across Colorado.”
Other examples cited by Van Horn include Salt Lake City, which is working closely with electric utility, Rocky Mountain Power, to achieve the goal of 100% renewable electricity by 2032. “A detailed plan has been released for the city to enhance energy efficiency community-wide, increase investments in local clean energy like solar and to expand zero-emission vehicles as part of the 100% clean energy goal,” she elaborates.
Change, however, is always a challenge. And to achieve such a significant change will undoubtedly require a fresh mind-set for everyone – from individual level, through energy and utility companies to government, regulatory bodies and policy makers. “When we see many stakeholders – community members, elected officials, utility companies, business leaders – come together, that’s when change becomes inevitable,” Van Horn states.
Trump vs Renewables
In the US, however, proponents of renewable energy are currently facing the challenge of a Trump presidency. The US president famously withdrew the country from the Paris Agreement, a deal uniting the world’s nations in the fight against climate change.
Fortunately, in terms of progress, it’s a change in policy that has not impacted the growth of renewable energies as negatively as it could have. “In Trump’s Paris withdrawal speech, he stated: ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris’,” says Van Horn. “Immediately after, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto fired back with a response that Pittsburgh is in fact committed to the Paris Agreement and will move to 100% renewable energy.”
Further, after that policy shift by Trump, more than 7,400 cities worldwide joined forces in pledging to a renewable future. “Thousands of businesses, states and cities stood up to Trump after his announcement, demonstrating that the action we need globally is being led locally,” Van Horn comments. “Over the past year I’ve seen cities and towns redouble their efforts to meet the commitment our country made to address the global threat of climate change.
“Today, 63 cities [in the US] are committed to transitioning to 100% clean energy. Nearly 200 mayors have individually signed onto Mayors for 100% Clean Energy, signalling their belief that clean energy is still a priority. It’s togetherness, not division that defines the global community’s commitment to solving the climate crisis and transitioning to renewable energy.”
Clean energy opportunity
Such a global commitment ensures that the number of cities ultimately achieving 100% renewable energy will undoubtedly grow. Worldwide, communities and businesses remain dedicated to the introduction of clean energy while, at the same time, advances in associated technology make the application of such sources increasingly more viable.
“We have a collective responsibility to ensure that as we scale the energy economy, the benefits of renewable energy are fairly and equitably shared across our communities,” Van Horn explains. “We are witnessing unprecedented changes to our energy system driven by customer demand and renewable technology costs coming down more quickly than anyone expected.
“More than 70% of the world’s energy experts agree that transitioning to 100% clean energy is achievable. When it comes to achieving that target, no two cities will get there in exactly the same way. They must not only asses which resources are most available, but what values will ultimately guide their plans. The transition to 100% clean energy is an opportunity to put power back in the hands of the community and ensure that this is where our new energy system is rooted. In doing that, we are pursuing a world that is both climate-safe and more just by addressing not only how we power our society, but who has power in our society.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere