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

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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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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3147 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

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

  • Addressing emissions at the local level is the right approach.

    The temptation to solving global events at a national or international level simply results in treaties, accords and other forms of red-tape and hot air. The end result being inaction and the spending of lots of money for no measurable benefit.

    Acting at the local level however cuts through a lot of this and cities can focus on efforts to clean up their air, primarily for the benefit of their residents. The residents can appreciate and see the need to clean things up and will be willing to support the effort through money or physical help. Its a relatively easy sell to the tax payers in a community if they see direct benefit to themselves or their immediate neighbors. It doesn’t have to be sold as a solution for ‘global warming’, since AGW is politically divisive. Solving emissions that cause local pollution is not as politically charged and the end result is the same, reduced emissions which will also help with mitigating production of green house gases.

    • AGW is politically divisive? It’ s not a dispute between Big-Endians and Little-Endians, but between flat-earthers and adherents of the Round Earth Theory.

    • It’s also a matter of trust as well as economics re your comment about “a relatively easy sell”. I think it’s just a matter of time as technology improves, relationships are established and decision makers better understand how they can save money for their communities. The technology is available right now and it will only get better. As the report points out there are lots of things communities can do at the local level.

      I’d like to see communities work closer with their utilities to facilitate RE. So much more could be done and electricity represents a big part of emissions .. a better understanding how communities can leverage their load to save money. But there is so much conflict of interest and utility business models have to fundamentally change. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

      So I think you’re both right; the EPA has now released their rules and we’ll see how that goes… Regrettably it’s a mandate that is politically charged and the general public along with too many decision makers at local levels are pretty ignorant on energy issues and the economics involved. So more controversy. The unfortunate thing is that the feds seem to be taking control after decades…. and it didn’t need to be that way.

      It is happening, though, and that’s good.

  • The analogy with the state objections to ACA is strained. The regulation of insurance has been a state responsibility, and Medicaid has been administered by the states from its inception. ACA had to work with these state competencies, hence the Sebelius case. But the Clean Air Act was straight federal. Vehicle efficiency standards are set nationally. Obama could legally have gone with similar federal emission standards for power plants. Instead the CPP works with the states – as a free concession. McConnell’s attempt to gin up state noncompliance is a nonsense, and if any try it they will be at the receiving end of a very pointy lawsuit, and may find the Feds simply taking over.

  • There are plenty of two-party systems in the world where both sides accept AGW as fact: the UK and Ireland for two. The only parallels to the USA are Australia, and, less closely. Canada, which has more than two major parties. The common factor between Australia and the USA could be Rupert Murdoch, but that doesn’t fit Canada.

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