By Eleanor Fulvio – 5/9/23
The Role of Local Government in the Clean Energy Transition
There are a myriad of often competing ideas of how best to make the clean energy transition, but the reality is that we need to be using all possible solutions and avenues if we are to avoid climate catastrophe. While the transition most certainly requires large-scale, coordinated, governmental action, individual consumer and smaller governmental action play indispensable roles as well. In fact, local governmental initiatives can not only help individual communities but can also precipitate and support more robust renewable energy policy at the state level. This is the case particularly when state policies fall short of what is needed. Pennsylvania falls into this category as it ranks 45th out of all states in the country in renewable energy generation and has a concerningly low annual renewable energy target (or Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard) for Tier I sources – 8% – and less than that for quality renewable sources like wind and solar. Furthermore, local elected officials and the residents they represent understand the diverse and complex factors at play in their communities and are therefore uniquely positioned to adopt measures that address their community’s environmental and energy needs equitably and effectively. Just as the world requires international governmental cooperation to address climate change on a global scale, local climate and environmental issues necessitate local solutions and present local opportunities.
Local Government Action for the Clean Energy Transition
If the United States is to take meaningful action to fight climate change, local, state, and federal governments must take a proactive role in the clean energy transition. Local governments in particular have the power to effect change in their communities, inspiring and also requiring collective action, and should do so in ways that respond to the unique challenges and opportunities of the areas they serve. Two important areas in which municipalities can take action to further the energy evolution include government property-related and policy-related initiatives.
Governments are in a position to effectively lead by example through their properties and assets. Municipalities should reflect on their energy usage and make changes to reduce overall energy consumption as well as transition government consumption to renewable energy. Adopting renewable energy goals is a key first step in staying accountable to the transition. Once set, these goals can be achieved through measures like switching to renewable energy in government buildings and to electric vehicles for municipal use. Government services and assets like public transportation and parks and green space can be used to promote habits, such as walking, biking, and using public transit, that reduce energy consumption. Moreover, local governments have a responsibility to collaborate with local businesses, organizations, and other levels of government to ensure progress towards a cleaner energy future.
Most importantly, perhaps, local governments should encourage and mandate broader adoption of sustainability measures and renewable energy in their communities through policy, education, and outreach to local residents. Through strategic policy implementation, municipalities can foster sustainable practices and change behaviors. For example, green building codes should require new constructions to meet environmental standards and offer pathways to improve efficiency in existing buildings. Local governments can also cultivate the development of the local renewable economy through zoning and simplifying permitting processes for wind and solar projects. Depending on state laws, municipalities can even invest in community solar projects, allowing residents access to the benefits of solar power with the added advantage of contributing to the local economy and job growth. It is important to note that as of this writing, community solar remains illegal in Pennsylvania, though there are bipartisan efforts underway in the current legislative session to lift the ban on it, as discussed later. Local governments seeking to do their part to mitigate climate change can look to Philadelphia, the West Chester Area Council of Governments, and Swarthmore Borough – among many others throughout Pennsylvania and nationally – for examples of how to work around state and federal limitations to implement local solutions that involve residents and stakeholders in order to create lasting and impactful change.
Clean Energy Transition Success Stories from Local Governments in Pennsylvania
Multiple examples from southeastern Pennsylvania alone demonstrate how local governments are leading the charge in the clean energy transition. Philadelphia was widely lauded by environmental groups in 2017 when Mayor Jim Kenney signed a pledge to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and released a municipal energy master plan, which included maintaining or reducing the cost of energy, switching to 100% renewable electricity, halving greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing municipal energy use by 20% by 2030. At the time, it was considered a good first step for the city, particularly due to the use of energy efficiency goals early on. In September 2019, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution to reach 100% clean energy by 2050. The resolution included three primary steps: 1) 100% renewable electricity for municipal operations by 2030, 2) 100% renewable city-wide electricity by 2035, and 3) renewable energy for all other uses by 2050. According to the 2022 progress update released by the city’s Office of Sustainability in February 2023, Philadelphia is on track to achieve its 2030 goals with the exception of the renewable energy component (see table below). Philadelphia’s renewable energy transition plan is notable because it underscores the significance of goal setting, especially employing achievable milestones, and of review at a regular cadence to hold the municipality accountable to its goals.
Another example of collective renewable energy action by local governments in Pennsylvania is a group of six Chester County municipalities, the West Chester Area Council of Governments (COG), that drafted an Energy Transition Plan starting in 2019. The plan took a two-pronged approach, with one branch focused on municipal projects and policies, and the other – called the West Chester Area Clean Energy Future – focused on community outreach and education. In conjunction with the COG, residents, and external stakeholders, a hired consulting firm developed a feasibility and cost study followed by a step-by-step plan for the COG to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050. Besides a transition to renewables, the plan also focuses on efforts to continually engage community residents on energy topics. Their website includes useful information and resources for key community stakeholders – residents, small businesses, large businesses, school districts, and universities. This serves as an important example of how a local governmental body can take action to promote clean energy both within the government and in the broader community through liaising with and informing all parties concerned.
Similarly, more than 40 local governments in southeastern Pennsylvania have passed Ready for 100 resolutions, a program started by the Sierra Club. By signing the pledge, municipalities demonstrate their commitment to transitioning to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and to renewable energy for all other needs, such as transportation, heating, and cooling, by 2045. As previously highlighted in our blog, Swarthmore Borough is one such government that has made the transition to renewables. After adopting a Ready for 100 resolution, Swarthmore Borough and its Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) joined The Energy Co-op as a member of the Renewable Natural Gas program in order to transition all their municipal heating needs to renewable energy, becoming the first municipality in Pennsylvania to transition away from fracked gas. Additionally, Swarthmore Borough’s EAC partners with other nearby organizations, such as the Chester-Ridley-Crum Watersheds Association and aFewSteps.org, to achieve the borough’s goals. One of the goals of aFewSteps.org was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 in Swarthmore and three nearby communities. Through their work and that of the local municipalities, emissions in the area actually decreased by 27.8% between 2005 and 2015. This is a prime example of how residents like those on the Swarthmore Borough EAC, who are committed to sustainability and renewable energy, can coordinate with their local government and other organizations to ameliorate the environmental outlook in their communities and push the energy evolution forward.
Statewide Legislative Initiatives to Support Local Government in the Clean Energy Transition
While local governments can take steps on their own to influence the clean energy transition for their communities, statewide policy is also essential to supporting and furthering the extent to which municipalities are able to act. As discussed in our blog in March, there are currently numerous state legislative initiatives in the pipeline that could occasion important renewable energy policy changes in Pennsylvania. For example, while Pennsylvania law currently allows for utility-scale solar arrays as well as rooftop solar, it does not permit community solar projects, which are arrangements that allow customers to subscribe to an offsite solar project and receive credit for their share of its monthly generation on their monthly bills. To lift the ban on community solar and thereby increase the accessibility of solar power, State Sen. Rosemary Brown (R-Monroe) introduced the bipartisan Senate Bill 550 in the current 2023-2024 legislative session. Pennsylvania also needs to update and strengthen the state’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards; there are currently a few bills to do that, most notably the reintroduced Senate Bill 300. Additionally, on April 3, State Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) reintroduced Senate Bill 872, which would mandate Pennsylvania’s transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Measures like these will play a pivotal role in broadening the scope of actions local governments can take and in removing barriers to creative, locally based solutions, such as community solar. Not only would this foster greater investment in renewable technologies in the state, the increased diversification of energy sourcing would also help drive down the cost of renewables in the state. More competitive prices will make switching to renewables even more attractive to and achievable for municipalities, businesses, and individual consumers alike. Should the measures to lift the ban on community solar in Pennsylvania not pass, however, Pennsylvania’s solar power will remain prohibitively costly to many consumers, businesses, and municipalities, and investment in solar in the state will be stymied. If passed, all of these proposals will enable more individuals to take action to support local governments in transitioning to clean energy because it will create an energy market that is more attractive to consumers from both an environmental and a cost standpoint.
Individual Action to Support Local Government in the Clean Energy Transition
So what can you as an individual consumer do to facilitate the transition to clean energy in your community? Though taking personal responsibility to spend your consumer dollars on renewable energy for your home or business is a powerful step that sends an economic message about what you value, engaging in the local community, especially with local government, can make an even more appreciable impact. Connect with elected officials to ask that they prioritize and pass clean energy resolutions and policies. Attend public municipal government meetings to share your concerns about climate change, ideas for addressing it, and questions about initiatives being considered. These can be effective ways to make your voice heard and shape the decisions being made by your local elected officials. Get involved in other local efforts, such as sustainability committees or environmental advisory councils to take your responsible activism even further. Through these avenues, you can encourage your local municipality to adopt a Ready for 100 resolution, as Swarthmore Borough has done, or develop its own custom energy transition plan, like that implemented by the West Chester Area Council of Governments.
Finally, make your vote count by electing local officials who will introduce and support clean energy measures. The municipal primary, including that for Philadelphia’s mayor, is next week on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. Understand which representatives best represent your commitment to clean energy in your local government so you can make informed voting decisions. And bring a neighbor or friend along to vote too! Every vote counts. Innovative, collective approaches are critical for solving the global climate crisis, and every level of action – from individual choices, to local government and corporate initiatives, to national and international cooperation – has a vital role to play in the clean energy transition.