Progress on renewable energy growth starts locally

Crescent Dunes solar power plant in Tonopah, Nevada, is a leading light in concentrated solar power, where molten salt can store vastly more electricity than conventional utility-scale batteries. (SolarReserve)

Crescent Dunes solar power plant in Tonopah, Nevada, is a leading light in concentrated solar power, where molten salt can store vastly more electricity than conventional utility-scale batteries. (SolarReserve)

Local governments and agencies are more agile than national governments in adopting new things. Where clean energy is concerned, the United States has shown how successful local action can be. In the adoption of renewable energy technologies, states and cities have led the charge.

A big reason for that is regional. One size does not fit all when it comes to clean energy. Some areas may be blessed with abundant sunshine, others with wind. Elsewhere, hydropower or geothermal may be the most readily available resources. And turning biomass into electricity and liquid fuel provides energy in agricultural areas.

So while federal government support helps speed things up, local buy-in makes things happen. Clean energy programs are tailored to the localities’ specific needs.

Paint-spattered group of four women, dressed in blue (PEER Africa)
Local action brought jobs and low-tech solar reflective technology to !Kheis, a town in South Africa’s Northern Cape. These workers, all women, just finished a job painting “cool coating” on a building. (PEER Africa)


“In the U.S., it is local and state governments, along with businesses, that are primarily responsible for the dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years,” stated an open letter to the international community signed by 1,291 governors, mayors, and business and academic leaders. This came as leaders at the U.S. Conference of Mayors emphasized their commitment to clean energy in June.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the nation’s industrial belt, was once among the cities with the worst air pollution. But Pittsburgh’s local action, along with Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards, turned that around. Pittsburgh’s air pollution dropped. The state has become a clean energy leader. Formerly a coal state, it is seeing economic growth through wind, solar and other clean energy technologies that have created thousands of jobs.

Black and white image of city skyline shrouded in smog (© AP Images)
Air quality in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has greatly improved since this 1947 photo was taken, thanks to policies adopted by the city and the state. (© AP Images)

Some cities are compromised by their geography, like Los Angeles and Mexico City, where harmful levels of air pollution are retained by surrounding mountains. Los Angeles and the state of California have spearheaded clean energy precisely because of air quality issues. Los Angeles is a laboratory for fighting air pollution. Although high ozone levels still make it one of America’s most polluted cities, L.A. has achieved dramatic reductions in dangerous pollutants since the city began incorporating renewable energy resources, energyefficiency measures and moving away from fossil fuels all local policies.

“Clean energy is moving forward in the United States, with significant, tangible, rapid progress,” begins the recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Clean Energy Momentum (2017), which ranks states’ progress in clean energy across the nation. The top 10 states are literally all over the map, from leader California, to the Pacific Northwest, to Iowa in the Midwest, to up and down the Northeast coast.

Large white propellers mounted in ocean (© AP Images)
Rhode Island takes clean energy seriously . It was the first U.S. state to build an offshore wind farm. These wind turbines stand in the water near Block Island. (© AP Images)


States have formed coalitions of mutual support, notably the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states joined forces to form “the first mandatory market-based program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” to bolster these states’ already robust renewableenergy programs. Five of the states, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine and New York, are among the top 10 clean energy leaders.

Other groups are internationally active, such as C40 Cities and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, an initiative to promote clean energy and environmental responsibility, created in 2016 by a merger of the older Compact of Mayors and the Covenant of Mayors. So far 7,500 cities worldwide are on board.

ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability was founded in 1990 to support local governments developing environmentally sustainable cities and towns. It has a presence on all continents and more than 1,200 local government members. ICLEI offers consulting and training in clean energy and sustainable development.

Bank of computer monitors in operations center (SMUD)
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District successfully incorporates “smart grid” technology into its business and customer service plan. (SMUD)


U.S. states promote their products and expertise independently of the federal government, and a number of states have inked agreements with other countries.

For years, California has collaborated across borders on clean energy projects. Most recently, in June, the California-China Clean Technology Partnership was established to foster innovation, commercialization and trade in the clean energy industry. California has international agreements with Brazil and Mexico, Canada, Chile, India and Japan, among other countries. The California Energy Commission works with Mexico to promote clean energy and best practices, for example.

Man operating equipment in front of solar panels (SolarReserve)
Solar Reserve promotes urban solar farms like this one in South Africa to promote small businesses. The company has built grid-scale solar power projects at several locations in South Africa. (SolarReserve)

On the business end, California’s Solar Reserve, which built the Crescent Dunes solar power plant and other solar projects in the United States, is also a global leader in solar energy. The company has built several solar projects in South Africa, two in Chile, one in Australia, with others in development around the world. It is one of many companies installing smart energy technologies in partnership with local governments inside and outside the United States.

Iowa-based Berkshire Hathaway Energy derives a quarter of its energy generation from renewable and non-carbon sources. It operates in nine U.S. states and owns AltaLink, the largest energy transmission company in Alberta, Canada.

Iowa whose wind farms generated 37 percent of its electricity in 2016, according to the Energy Information Administration is one of 29 states to adopt Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards. These aim to increase power generation from renewable energy resources, while growing jobs and protecting the environment as 21st century energy is transformed.

By: Lea Terhune