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What Your City Can Do To Fight Climate Change

The Obama administration is pushing power plant regulations to reduce carbon emissions and most states have some sort of renewable energy policy. But there’s plenty of opportunity left for action at the local level; action that can also boost the local economy.

solar on store - flickr mike gifford

The following presentation by ILSR’s Director of Democratic Energy John Farrell to the Northfield Climate Summit on January 18, 2014, illustrates what one small Minnesota town has done, what other steps it can take as part of the state’s GreenStep Cities program, and model local climate actions from around the United States.

What One Small Town Has Done

Northfield, MN, is a small town promoting “cows, colleges, and contentment” 45 minutes south of Minneapolis, MN. The city differs from other small towns in that it hosts two private liberal arts colleges, and it has a core of local activity around local renewable energy and climate change. Thus far, the city has adopted zoning regulations to encourage low-carbon development, invested in transit, and led a buy local campaign. All these steps are encouraged by a state-based program called GreenStep Cities, which provides technical assistance to cities looking to reduce their environmental impact.

What More Can a Town Do?

The state program has several prominent “steps” that Northfield and other cities can use to reduce their energy consumption and increase capture of local energy dollars. This includes benchmarking and retrofitting public buildings for lower energy use or on-site energy production. Such ordinances can also apply to commercial and residential buildings, saving tenants and homeowners money for many years. City installation of LED traffic signals is a investment that pays back in 2-3 years for many cities. The city can also streamline permitting and other local regulations governing local energy production, smoothing the path for city residents to make their own investments.

The city also generated a remarkable list of other potential actions from an energy task force that organized and met regularly several years ago.  It’s investigation included local actions such as:

  • forming a city energy commission to formalize city efforts to reduce energy consumption and cost
  • passing new policies/ordinances, e.g. carbon free by 2033
  • creating a special energy district within the city
  • updating the city’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory
  • establishing a modest clean energy charge or franchise fee on electric bills
  • trying to get a smart grid pilot program

What Else Has Been Done?

Even with its extensive local research into local climate solutions, there are several strategies implemented around the country that Northfield and other cities can look to:

  • Lancaster and Sebastapol in California require new housing developments to include on-site energy production from solar, capitalizing on the much lower cost of installing solar when the buildings are going up.
  • Many cities are adopting solar permitting best practices to dramatically reduce red tape for private solar installations
  • Boulder, CO, and Babylon, NY, have used their local taxing authority to create funds for reducing home and businesses energy use and generate power from local renewable energy resources.
  • Several cities, from Seattle to Minneapolis to New York, are requiring benchmarking energy use for commercial buildings, to ensure that energy use is known and can give buyers and sellers full information when buying and selling property.
  • In many states, cities can adopt their own building energy code or a state “stretch code” to increase the energy efficiency and lower the energy cost of new residential and commercial buildings.
  • In Minnesota, residents of cities can support two bills that would increase city leverage with their energy utilities. One would expand their ability to negotiate energy priorities with their utilities, the other would reduce barriers to forming city-owned utilities.
  • Finally, several cities (like Boulder, CO, and Santa Fe, NM) are studying the potential for local control of utilities to significantly increase local renewable energy development and reduce carbon emissions.

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford

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Written By

John directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (, and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at


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