Research

Published on April 28th, 2016 | by Joshua S Hill

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Exploring How Cities Can Switch To A Low-Carbon Energy Grid

April 28th, 2016 by  

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.”

Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO - Taken by Ken Kinder in December of 2002, CC By SA 3.0, en WIkipediaThe 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.”


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About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.



  • ElectricGuy

    Boulder citizens are vastly unhappy with the city’s ongoing attempt to create their own electrical utility. I woueln’t countthis as a green win for quite some time.

    As Freddy notes, other options are available. IIRC, Boulder has implemented a net zero requirement that will start with the largest homes and gradually move to smaller ones. I think it also includes an EV ready requirement, but that is as little as a conduit from electrical panel to the garage.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Requiring conduit (and a large enough service) is plenty. If the conduit is in place it’s a quick job to pull the wire and attach it to a breaker at one end and an outlet on the other.

      Require the conduit for PV as well during construction.

      • ElectricGuy

        My PV is fed through the roof. Better a custom install there.

        • Bob_Wallace

          While framing they could have stubbed up a conduit and capped it off. If it was never used the lost cost would have been very insignificant compared to the savings if it was.

          • ElectricGuy

            The variation is PV is much larger than the variation in EV outlets. Not much savings vs the risk of an ill-placed conduit.

  • Freddy D

    Cities have extraordinary leverage on climate change because they own the building codes, which influence electrical demand hugely and even more so, heating and AC demand. If they only focus on electrical generation, they’re missing much of not most of the carbon emissions.
    Step 1: Move to Net-Zero / Superinsulated building codes for all new construction, as the state of California has done for 2020 and beyond. As part of that, all new construction must be EV-ready – heavy circuits wired to the garage, as Palo Alto did years ago and more jurisdictions are doing.
    Step 2: All homes for sale or for rent get some sort of energy performance assessment – an “MPG Sticker” if you will. I know measuring building performance has challenges, but the market is completely flying blind now and renters really get the short end of the energy bill stick. Austin TX has begun doing this, and the UK I believe.
    Step 3″ All homes for sale or for rent must meet minimum standards on item 2 above, and the standards increase over time. Again Austin and others are showing the way. There must be a path to migrate existing buildings to better performance.

    If these measures are implemented correctly, the net cost to the consumer is negative – in other words the cost of energy saved is more than the investment. And it creates local construction jobs. Win-win.

    • ElectricGuy

      Add to this the ability for the energy rating to improve home mortgage amount by acknowledging the lower utility bills.

      • Freddy D

        Yes – why haven’t developers of new homes figured out that they get more revenue and profit by building net-zero homes, financing a slightly larger mortgage (but less than the combined mortgage / utility for conventional construction, and pocketing the profit? It would be a win-win, but they’re not educated on these construction techniques.

        • ElectricGuy

          Price is king. Look what Travelocity, et al, did to airlines. Everybody shed all the perks and got to the lowest price possible, so they could top the list. Builders are not different.

          Building codes are a partial answer, at least you can avoid redoing some of the work.

          Bank/Fed lending standards need to change, too. The debt to income ratio needs to be adjusted for green homes.

          The good news is that we can afford to go green. The bad news is so few people know it.

          • Freddy D

            Indeed. Unless the builder handles financing….

          • ElectricGuy

            Eventually, they will be conventionally financed. Lenders need a guideline that investors and buyers will accept.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Excellent. EV – and PV – ready. Installing the conduit while building is cheap.

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