How Communities Can Take Action On Clean Energy

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Originally published on RMI Outlet.
By Kaitlyn Bunker, Ph.D., Erik G. Fowler, & Christa Owens Michelet

The U.S. is going through a major energy revolution—clean-energy investments totaled a staggering $52 billion in 2014 alone—and communities are at the forefront. Citizens are increasingly asking their cities to develop and act on ambitious plans and community leaders are seeing the social, political, and economic benefits of doing so. Many communities are stepping up with bold plans—from Palo Alto to Fort Collins to Austin to New York City. These innovators are undertaking groundbreaking projects with the private sector, setting ambitious clean-energy goals, and in many cases rethinking traditional approaches to entire energy and transportation systems.

blog_2015_12_01-1Today, RMI releases a new resource guide to assist leaders and practitioners in U.S. communities with a desire to transform their energy use. This resource guide is intended to be a reference tool for ongoing community-level energy work, and to serve as a roadmap and methodology to help communities create a comprehensive energy action plan. It is designed to assist community leaders, policy makers, stakeholders, and business leaders in communities of all sizes.

The Many Benefits of Community Energy Action

We recognize that community members will undertake these efforts for many reasons; our primary focus in writing this guide is to provide practical support whatever their motivation. In preparing this resource guide, we synthesized findings from previous and ongoing RMI community engagements as well as the findings of several leading external organizations, communities, and practitioners.

The advantages of an action plan are many. Community energy action has the potential to not only address climate change and diversify energy portfolios away from fossil fuels, it can capture energy dollars traditionally exported elsewhere and reinvest them locally. Other benefits include reduced fuel-import risks, improved environmental performance and public health, and increased local investment and job opportunities in the rapidly expanding clean energy economy.

Cities and other communities are in a unique position to set ambitious clean-energy and sustainability goals and pilot innovative projects, with the potential to quickly scale up those with the greatest potential for success in domains as varied as building efficiency, transportation and land use, and electricity and energy supply. However, beyond ambitious goals, sound planning is the key to unlocking these benefits.

A Practical Tool for Community Energy Work

One of the many experiences this guide is built on is RMI’s work with the community of Duluth, Minnesota. Duluth is actively engaged in community-led clean-energy planning, and leaders there have informed this guide, and are pleased to be informed by it. “This guide is practical and practitioner oriented, and gives us and so many other U.S. communities a process to follow, along with great examples of tools and resources to put our community in a position of leadership,” says Jodi Slick, CEO of Ecolibrium 3, a leader of Duluth’s energy planning. “RMI was a strong thought partner in our initial process, and we are excited to see a resource guide come out of that.”

The guide outlines a plan or process for success that may be adapted to your community and offers practical guidance for local decision makers, practitioners, and leaders. It is packed with examples of innovative initiatives and strategies; tools and resources for planning, analyzing, selecting, and evaluating different approaches; and new ideas to spur uptake by the private sector. In addition, the resource guide walks communities through:

  • Developing a transparent and collaborative planning process that will work best for your community
  • The critical step of securing dedicated leadership and suggestions for ensuring that the leadership team is effective
  • Suggestions for collecting data and doing the right amount of analysis, at the right time, and with the right people
  • Selecting tactics and strategies from leading examples and innovative ideas in building efficiency, electricity, transportation, and industry—with many opportunities for engaging with the private sector

What Makes a Community-Led Energy Plan Successful?

The Department of Energy’s Guide to Community Strategic Energy Planning notes that the essential characteristics of a successful plan are that it be comprehensive, integrated into community efforts, proactive, and ambitious. To this we add that it must be strategically aligned with capacity for action. Also—and of primary importance—it must be championed and owned at the highest and/or most influential levels. Furthermore, those plans that clearly identify economic and private-sector opportunities along with enabling policy mechanisms can be especially impactful. Plans that seek to align with broader community concerns or ambitions such as environment, climate, resilience, risk reduction, and sustainability are also much more likely to gain significant traction.

This new resource guide will assist you with critical elements of a successful comprehensive energy strategy for a community, and is based in large part on what is working in leading communities. To learn more, please download your copy of the Community Energy Resource Guide.

Reprinted with permission.

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Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit for more information.

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