Building a new kind of energy

How cities are changing the way they work to improve equity and energy outcomes for residents

Cities: Unique opportunities. Unique challenges.

With more than 80% of Americans and more than half the world living in cities, Mayors and city leaders have a critical role to play in national and global efforts.

In fact, research from America Is All In, the most expansive coalition of local leaders ever assembled in support of climate action in the United States, found that a comprehensive strategy that fully activates cities, states and businesses, can reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% (of 2005 levels) by 2030.

Compared to their federal and state counterparts, city leaders are uniquely suited to adapt large-scale efforts to their local context; they know their residents and neighborhoods better than anyone. In the US, local elections (compared to national elections) tend to be less about partisan identity and more about specific issues, meaning local leaders are uniquely reflective of — and accountable to — their constituents.

However, like any layer of government, cities face structural and historical challenges when it comes to turning democratic wins into real change. Big goals — even those with a clear public mandate — risk fragmentation across internal departments and/or the disconnect between elected/appointed officials and career civil servants. Cities also reflect America’s painful legacy of inequity and injustice, demanding that even as they look forward, cities must look back and around to make sure all residents share in the city’s progress.

The good news is that while bureaucracy can be an obstacle, it can also be a powerful tool. Bureaucracy forces dialogue and consensus; leaders who engage not only the public, but also internal departments and career civil servants, build stronger coalitions and the ability to deliver on their promises, over and over again.

Innovation in the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge

Climate change is just one example of a large-scale effort where Mayors and cities play a critical leadership role. The 25 cities in the American Cities Climate Challenge, supported by a range of national and local partners, are prioritizing three main levers to achieve ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals: decarbonized buildings, renewable energy, and greener transit options.

To make the most of these levers, cities are rethinking internal operations, including teams, budgets, meetings, resident outreach, and more. On the surface, these changes might not look as sleek as a solar farm, but they create their own kind of renewable energy — and drive lasting, equitable impact.

In today’s post, we highlight three examples of cities taking a new approach to energy efficiency and renewable energy — and seeing real results.

Energy & Equity: How Cincinnati is making the most of climate spending to reduce energy bills for low-income residents — and improve energy efficiency across the city.

Energy bills are where climate change hits home. Investing in residential energy efficiency creates an opportunity for cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while tangibly improving the everyday lives of residents — especially vulnerable populations.

In Cincinnati, residential energy efficiency initiatives had long been focused on single-family homes, leaving gaping holes in both equity and climate change outcomes. Low-income tenants living in outdated, multi-family buildings were left with disproportionately high energy bills; the same underperforming buildings forcing tenants to choose between utility and grocery bills were contributing heavily to the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

So when Cincinnati set out to invest funds from the Climate Challenge and a utility rate case settlement, they saw an opportunity to increase their impact by working directly with low-income households in multifamily units. WarmUp Cincy — the program the city built as a result — goes beyond bill assistance to offer energy audits, retrofits, appliance upgrades, and comprehensive education, so residents not only get real-time assistance, but are also able to lower their energy bills for years to come. Persistent follow-up with residents creates a 2-way feedback loop that gives leaders a real sense of how the program is working on the ground, while informing future initiatives.

WarmUp Cincy is a working model for any city looking to add low-income, multi-family homes to their residential energy efficiency initiatives, addressing emissions and racial inequity head-on. It also serves as a reminder that funds earmarked for climate change — whether from federal stimulus, rate case settlements, or other sources — can drive lasting impact when they are invested upstream, in root causes, and with an eye towards long-term outcomes.

For more about WarmUp Cincy, click here.

Critical mass: How Columbus united the Mayor’s office, the Sustainable Columbus team, and the overwhelming majority of voters to reach toward bold renewable energy goals.

Air quality and quality of life are inextricably linked. Knowing that, Mayor Andrew Ginther of Columbus, OH set a clear and compelling goal in January of 2020: powering local homes and small businesses with 100% renewable energy by 2022.

To make this happen, Columbus needed Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) — the practice of leveraging economies of scale to negotiate bulk rates on renewable energy, so residents and small businesses could afford to make the switch. Allowing the city to negotiate on their behalf required a great deal of public trust — hence, CCA became a citywide ballot measure in the 2020 election cycle.

Using economies of scale to make renewable energy more accessible was an innovation in its own right, but from a city perspective, the more compelling story might be how Columbus was able to define, introduce, and build support for a new program and ballot measure in just 10 months — despite a global pandemic. The effort demanded close coordination between the Mayor’s office, the office of finance (where the energy manager sits), and the office of sustainability.

Mayor Ginther had something going for him from the outset: A clear, ambitious, compelling goal. “100% renewable energy access for homes and small businesses by 2022” is specific enough and aspirational enough to convince voters and internal players. Columbus was able to rally teams around this shared goal, with the help of facilitators and technical experts from the Climate Challenge and its partners. From peer city benchmarking to joint planning, execution, and community outreach, the process was an overwhelming success: The ballot measure passed with nearly 76% of the vote, and Columbus is now on track to reach its renewable energy goals.

The air quality benefits from the CCA’s renewable energy are projected to result in the following in Ohio over 20 years:

  • 22 fewer premature deaths
  • 654 fewer cases of breathing illnesses
  • 6,480 fewer school days missed
  • 1,080 fewer work days missed

For cities managing cross-cutting goals across multiple offices, Columbus illustrates the importance of a leadership goal that is both ambitious and specific — as well as the importance of facilitated, ongoing dialogue — to coordinate multiple departments towards a common cause.

For more about Community Choice Aggregation in Columbus, click here.

Rise above silos: How Pittsburgh is giving its sustainability office the access and influence it needs to drive impact — starting with municipal retrofits.

Even cities with the best climate change intentions can find themselves structurally unsuited to make real progress. That’s because cities necessarily spread climate-related operations across multiple internal departments, most of which were established before climate change was a priority. Without intensive coordination across departments, climate goals risk fragmentation — and ultimately, stagnation.

One phenomenon affecting cities’ ability to achieve climate goals is the placement of its Sustainability Office. Establishing the office in the first place demonstrates a city’s commitment to climate change work — but unless the office is positioned close to the center of government; i.e the Mayor’s, City Manager’s, and finance offices, it will not have the access and influence necessary to drive meaningful results.

In Pittsburgh, despite a city-wide commitment to climate work, uncertainty across stakeholders around the ability to use a budget neutral energy efficiency financing program had caused delays in municipal energy efficiency projects.

The city saw an opportunity to solve for this kind of coordination challenge: Climate Implementation Units.The City of Pittsburgh Sustainability and Resilience Office convened city leadership, to include the Mayor and relevant department heads, to align on immediate climate priorities requiring implementation support across partners. Then, Pittsburgh chartered Climate Implementation Units to lead each priority. These units bring together relevant planning and implementation partners to provide clarity on goals, needed actions and timelines, ownership, and engagement from city and departmental leadership.

One of these units — the Netzero Buildings Implementation Unit — has already received approval to use the budget neutral energy efficiency financing program, giving them a much-needed financial tool for their energy-efficient retrofits to municipal buildings. This model serves as a potential solution for not only climate work, but for taking on any cross-departmental challenge.

The American Cities Climate Challenge, funded and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is a collaboration between 25 US Cities, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Delivery Associates, and national and local partners. To learn more, click here.

Delivery Associates is a public sector consulting firm helping government leaders and social impact organizations turn big ideas into everyday impact.

Learn more about our work in climate change and sustainability here.

We partner with governments and other social impact organisations to make change happen.

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