A law professor from the University of Kansas has explored innovative approaches for cities to switch to a low-carbon energy grid.
Uma Outka, an associate professor of law at the University of Kansas, is the author behind Cities and the Low-Carbon Grid, an upcoming article in the journal Environmental Law. The paper details innovative approaches cities and communities can use to cut carbon emissions, and how these efforts will affect energy governance in years to come.
Specifically, the paper “examines the evolution of cities and the modern electric grid, legal context for cities’ electric power, cites examples of cities making innovative transitions and argues that, increasingly, cities can influence the transition to a low-carbon energy sector.”
The paper highlights Boulder, Colorado, as one town which has focused on the environment. According to Outka, more than a decade ago, Boulder was among the first American cities to develop a local agenda for climate change mitigation. Boulder also offered support for the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact that the United States itself did not sign the international treaty.
Problematically, in 2013, Boulder’s city leaders realized they were at the mercy of investor-owned utility company Xcel, which provided more than 75% of the city’s power through fossil fuels, primarily coal. Subsequently, the city has moved to pursue a public ownership model that will give it much more control and flexibility over the power it sources.
“They have been totally dependent on the resource decisions Xcel would make,” Outka said of Boulder. “Reading about that situation made me want to dig deeper into what cities could do on energy use and climate change. It’s a varied landscape, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but I think this transitional moment for the electricity sector presents new possibilities that motivated cities can explore.”
Minneapolis in Minnesota faced a similar problem when its leaders realized its own Climate Action Plan on cutting greenhouse gas emissions was being thwarted by the city’s utility supplier generating the majority of its energy from fossil fuels. Unlike Boulder, Minneapolis didn’t go forward with a municipal utility, but nevertheless renegotiated a contract with Xcel, forming a City-Utility Clean Energy Partnership which Outka describes as a “first-of-its-kind” innovation.
“People will definitely be watching what happens in Minneapolis,” Outka said. “They took advantage of the expiration of their contract and re-negotiated in an innovative way. The fact that there was an option for the city had to have had an impact in bringing the utility to the negotiating table.”
The paper also looks at cities such as Burlington in Vermont, and San Diego in California — the former having already succeeded in acquiring 100% of its energy from renewable sources, the latter aiming to do so by 2020.
“Cities have been leading forces for demanding change in the area of low-carbon energy, even though electricity is still one of the hardest issues for cities to influence,” Outka said. “That is appropriate in an era when the majority of our population lives within cities and the success of those leading in the low-carbon transition offers examples for other cities that want to do more to drive change locally.”