Cleveland is a post-industrial city with a gritty, soot-laden past. Located on the shores of Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, Cleveland was once emblematic of America’s industrial heartland — a place where blast furnaces lit up the nighttime sky, smokestacks belched plumes of pollutants into the atmosphere, and rivers were treated as little more than sewers for industries to use as they pleased.
On November 3, 1952, the Cuyahoga River actually caught fire when oil floating on its surface ignited, destroying three buildings and three tug boats belonging to the Great Lakes Towing Company before it was brought under control. Then it happened again in June of 1969. Both events were memorialized in a song by Randy Newman for the movie Major League. Cleveland is where John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil — the precursor of Exxon — in 1870.
Despite its past history of being one of America’s most polluted cities, or maybe because of it, Cleveland has now joined with 80 other US cities in pledging to transition to 100% renewable power by 2050. Ohio is coal country. 54% of its electricity is generated by burning the stuff. For Cleveland to turn its back on coal is a powerful statement about how the world is changing when it comes to renewable energy.
Mayor Frank Jackson unveiled the city’s plan to reduce its carbon emission to 80% below those in 2020 this week. “This plan is about much more than climate change,” Jackson said, according to Inside Climate News. “Implementing the actions in this plan will create a more sustainable Cleveland. By strengthening our economy, cleaning our environment, and improving the health and wellness of Clevelanders, we are building a thriving green city on a blue lake.”
In addition to touting the ability of renewables coupled with battery storage to create jobs, the plan claims, “The business case for energy efficiency and green buildings is strong. They have lower utility and maintenance costs, less risk from energy price volatility, increase property values, improve health and productivity of occupants, create local jobs, and much more.”
It won’t be easy to reach the goals set forth in the plan, but PV Magazine reports the city is relying on local renewable energy to get the job done. In addition to offshore wind in Lake Erie, the city has lots of abandoned or underused former industrial sites that could be natural choices for solar power plants.
At present, there is only 15 MW of installed solar power in Cuyahoga County, but the National Renewable Energy Lab estimates there are enough rooftops in the area to generate more than 10 times as much solar power. Nevertheless, that would only be enough electricity to meet 44% of the city’s needs. Solar power plants and offshore wind turbines would have to provide the rest.
Cleveland is served by two utility companies — Cleveland Public Power and First Energy. CPP has been making steady progress toward adding renewables to its portfolio but First Energy has been zealously guarding its coal-fired fleet. The city says it has already purchased enough renewable energy credits to provide for 50,000 homes and 5,000 small businesses in First Energy’s service area. It also has what it calls its Clean Energy Equity plan which is designed to help low-income households and small organizations purchase renewables.
Environmental groups in the area say the mayor’s plan is long on promises but short on details. Sandy Buchanan, executive director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit clean-energy research group based in Cleveland, says “They seem out of step with advancements in the global electricity market” when it comes to making a more rapid transition, she says, before adding that there are almost no details about how the 100% renewable energy pledge will be met.
In the end, it may not matter. At the annual Solar Power International conference in Anaheim, California, on September 25th, Gail Hopper, head of the Solar Energy Industries Association told those attending the conference that a recent poll conducted for SEIA shows an overwhelming number of people in both political parties support more renewable energy.
“Democrats, Republicans and Independents all said, everything being equal, they would vote against a politician who opposed solar power,” Hopper said “Politicians can take this to the bank — Americans will not stand for government or company policies that prevent them from accessing clean, renewable, job-producing, affordable power.”
According to the Mercury News, 76% of registered voters surveyed supported more solar, while 71% wanted more wind power so that the electricity they use contributes less to global climate change and creates jobs. And here’s a rocket for troglodytes in the utility industry. 9 out of 10 respondents said that their power company should not be able to stop them from using solar energy.
The writing is on the wall for all who care to see it. As always, if the people will lead, their leaders will follow. It is long past time for some utility companies who think progress in their industry stopped in 1957 to let the scales from their eyes and recognize the changes that are coming their way whether they are ready or not.