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How Cities Can Achieve Clean Power Plan Goals Even If States Don’t Support It

NREL report shows how cities can cut carbon emissions even if states refuse to comply with the new federal Clean Power Plan rules for power plants.

So, that didn’t take long. As soon as President Obama announced the new Clean Power Plan for reducing carbon emissions from power plants, the usual suspects decided that states don’t have to follow the new rules if they don’t wanna. Political observers are already noting that this stance resembles the fight over the Affordable Care Act, which was initially rejected by a number of states.

Well, some of those states are slowly creeping their way back into the Affordable Care Act fold, and we expect the same will happen with the Clean Power Plan. To help things along, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has just released a new report that effectively helps cities achieve Clean Power Plan goals, even if the state government is digging in its heels.

nrel cities clean power plan

Cities And The Clean Power Plan

The new report, called  “City-Level Energy Decision Making: Data Use in Energy Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation in U.S. Cities,” takes a select group of 20 cities and analyzes the actions they are taking to reduce energy consumption.

The whole report is available here, but for those of you on the go, the basic idea is that cities have a “large energy footprint.”

In global terms, according to NREL cities already account for approximately 70% of energy consumption, and they are expected to house 60% of the population by 2030.

Consider that the Clean Power Plan focuses on power plants because they are collectively the nation’s single biggest carbon emitter, and you’ll see where this is heading. In some states, emission reduction in population centers could result in a significant cut in carbon emissions overall.

Just yesterday we took note of energy and emissions issues for cities involving wastewater treatment plants, so now let’s take a look at the big picture according to NREL.

Cities Cutting Fossil Fuels

We’re thinking that the new report represents a deliberate strategy to help local governments support Clean Power Plan goals, even if state governments and other fossil stakeholders refuse to support it.

NREL makes the point right up front in the report that cities have already established a history of pro-actively addressing global warming (footnotes and acronyms removed for clarity):

In the United States, cities began formally addressing climate issues in the mid-1990s by creating greenhouse gas emission reduction goals and climate action plans. At this time, assistance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives’ Cities for Climate Protection Campaign largely supported CAPs . The 2005 U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement was another important catalyst for the creation of city-level CAPs. By 2007, more than 500 city mayors had signed this agreement, pledging GHG reductions in line with Kyoto Protocol targets. Over time, cities have continued to address energy issues in CAPs and in sustainability, energy, and environmental plans.

Here’s lead author Alexandra Aznar basically saying what we’re thinking:

City-level practitioners are doing inspiring energy-related work and are hungry for resources and tools to help them. This paper provides a snapshot of the kinds of energy-related actions cities are taking, as well as the challenges they face. The results confirm the need for many of the tools the Cities-LEAP project is developing.

NREL notes that cities have jurisdictional authority over a number of important energy-related sectors included transportation, land use and building codes. However, the agency cautions that overlapping state, federal and tribal jurisdictions can affect the ability of a city to take unilateral action.

3-D Chess And The Clean Power Plan

As a project of the Energy Department’s Cities-LEAP (Cities Leading Through Energy Analysis and Planning) initiative, the new report represents some long-range strategic thinking on the part of the Obama Administration. Cities-LEAP has built an alliance of population centers committed to carbon reduction, regardless of state politics:

Cities-LEAP supports the widespread implementation of city-sponsored, data-driven energy policies, programs, and projects that have the potential to drive a sea change in the national energy landscape.

I know, right? Cities-LEAP aims to help cities set climate or energy goals, plan strategically, implement those strategies, assess the impacts of their actions, learn from peer cities, and get access to the latest analytic tools.

Here’s a nifty infographic that explains the whole thing:

T his analysis demonstrates that many cities with energy and climate -related goals have difficulty  quantifying progress toward those goals and identifying policies that support those goals.  The  inability of cities to quantify the impacts of their specific a ctions also affirms the need for more  research in this field both to support cities in action prioritization and to  understand the national  impact s of city energy- related actions en masse. Cities also need additional support to make  energy decisions.


In the new report, NREL looked at a variety of factors and identified several common goals such as renewable energy and efficiency improvements (Clean Power Plan, much?), and efforts to get more people biking and walking.

The bottom line is that cities are “dynamic” when it comes to energy decision-making, but most lack the analytic tools to quantify the impacts of those decisions, prioritize goals, and develop the most strategically effective plans.

Next steps include getting those analytic tools into the hands of more urban planners, so stay tuned.

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Images (enhanced screenshot and infographic) via

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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