Hundreds of cities across the United States have announced 100% renewable energy or carbon-neutrality goals. While setting a target is a critical first step, many local governments struggle to determine what comes next — how should they prioritize various energy projects to meet their goals efficiently?
With unprecedented funding quickly becoming available from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), local governments need a more nimble, iterative planning process that can help them determine which energy actions to implement. Here are two fundamental questions cities and counties need to answer:
1.) Which facility types (e.g., office buildings, wastewater plants, airports, fire stations, etc.) should be prioritized?
2.) Which energy actions (e.g., electrification, energy efficiency, renewable energy procurement, etc.) should be prioritized?
To help local governments answer these questions and make progress toward their decarbonization goals, RMI developed the Local Energy Action Framework (LEAF) with six cities and counties across the United States, including Alexandria, VA; Ann Arbor, MI; Atlanta, GA; Boise, ID; Cincinnati, OH; and Miami-Dade County, FL.
What Is LEAF?
LEAF is a step-by-step process that helps local governments map out current and future electricity needs in an integrated, holistic fashion. Planning various decarbonization projects in isolation could lead to sub-optimal outcomes. For example, local governments might buy less renewable energy than they ultimately need if they do not consider the added demand that will come from electrifying buildings and vehicles. Or they could wind up generating massive peak loads, and thus inflating costs unnecessarily, if all of their electric vehicle charging and heat pumps turn on at the same time.
By helping local governments compile the necessary data and develop holistic clean energy plans, LEAF helps cities and counties understand not only the impact of individual energy actions but also how each action will interact with others.
In line with local governments’ desire to support their own communities, a core principle of LEAF is to maximize local resources and investment first. Some examples are electrifying buildings and vehicles, upgrading streetlights with LED lighting, and installing on-site solar with battery storage, etc. These local solutions can increase the flexibility of local electricity systems, create local green jobs, reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, and improve air quality.
Four Things Local Governments Need to Know to Reach Their Decarbonization Goals
Using the LEAF framework, we worked with six US local governments to identify the biggest electricity savings opportunities and evaluate how each energy action fits into the bigger picture. Building upon the data from these cities and counties, here are the most important takeaways cities can use in their own holistic clean energy planning:
1. Prioritizing energy efficiency improvements in facilities with the highest electricity demands leads to more energy savings.
Higher electricity usage often indicates greater potential for energy savings. Water and wastewater facilities are usually among the largest electricity users for most cities and counties — accounting for up to 70 percent of city electricity usage. However, local governments that operate a large airport, like Atlanta, may see that as the largest driver of demand. Other electricity loads, such as office space and outdoor lighting, often account for only a small fraction of overall usage, yet this can vary substantially between communities.
2. Electrifying heating and vehicle fleets can significantly decrease carbon emissions but will increase building load (excluding water facilities) by 5–17 percent annually.
Electrification has a notable impact on municipal carbon emissions reductions. According to the LEAF analysis, building and vehicle electrification could account for up to 52 percent of the total carbon emissions reductions resulting from all planned decarbonization efforts in these cities by 2030. However, the climate impact of electrification depends on how clean the grid is and will be in the future. Local governments should collaborate with local utilities to ensure the grid is decarbonizing in line with their decarbonization needs and timeline.
Meanwhile, building electrification, especially for heating systems, will significantly increase electricity demands for some local governments at certain times. For cities and counties in a cold climate zone, such as Boise, electrifying heating could increase their winter building load by 170 percent, and particularly drive load peaks in the early morning hours. The impact of building electrification will also tend to be higher for cities and counties that have more large office spaces. Local governments should therefore electrify buildings with efficient technologies, such as heat pumps, to mitigate the impact of increased load.
3. To achieve 24×7 clean electricity, flexible loads and batteries can help shift demand to hours of the day with lower electricity usage or when more renewable energy will be available.
Across all six local governments, 60–80 percent of their electricity consumption occurs between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., when solar resources are limited, due to large overnight loads of water treatment plants and outdoor lights. To achieve a 24-hour clean electricity supply, cities and counties may need to shift the operating hours of some flexible loads from night to daytime. In addition, using batteries charged with solar resources allows municipal facilities to operate on clean energy in the evening.
Smart electric vehicle (EV) charging is a great example of how deploying flexible electricity loads can have a positive impact. Municipal vehicles such as garbage trucks typically only run in the early morning to avoid traffic, while others, like patrol cars, need to run throughout the day. Cities and counties should identify which types of vehicles can be charged flexibly and optimize EV charging time to avoid charging during peak demand hours or hours without a clean energy supply.
4. Local governments should purchase off-site renewable energy, especially non-solar resources, to fill the remaining gap.
Most local governments do not have enough roofs or local land space to deploy on-site solar to power all their municipal operations. To achieve their 100 percent clean electricity goals, they will need to look to off-site solutions. Non-solar energy, including wind and geothermal resources, can be a good option to power large overnight loads such as streetlights and water facilities. Most US cities and counties will need to procure renewable energy through an off-site power purchase agreement (PPA), virtual PPA, and/or green tariff to fill the gap efficiently.
Accelerate Municipal Decarbonization Efforts with a Holistic Mindset
For many US local governments at the starting line of the decarbonization journey, the insights derived from LEAF can jump-start decarbonization planning in addition to saving time and money during implementation. Watch our webinar, view our PowerPoint guide, or reach out to Ali Rotatori at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how LEAF is helping local governments take charge.
Not sure how to start taking advantage of the upcoming funding from the IIJA and the IRA for your city’s decarbonization projects? Check out RMI’s Federal Funding Opportunities for Local Decarbonization (FFOLD) tool and new Funding Guidance to better understand where to start and which opportunities make the most sense for your local government.
By Jingyi Tang, Yuning Liu © 2023 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally posted on RMI Outlet.
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