How some Western cities are leading on climate action

Despite faltering national policy, some communities are forging ahead.


Barely 48 hours after the closing of the monumental global climate talks in Paris, on Dec. 12, 2015, more than 100 people packed into the open foyer of a warehouse-chic business-incubator office in Fort Collins, Colorado, to hear about a more local effort to slow climate change. The turnout was impressive for a city government open house, especially considering the below-freezing temperatures that Monday evening. 

“The world is looking to cities,” Jacqueline Kozak Thiel, the city’s sustainability officer, told the standing-room audience.

A college town of 155,000 people known for its beers and bike lanes, Fort Collins adopted an ambitious plan this past spring to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and be carbon-neutral by 2050. The initiative lacks worldwide reach, but it outpaces the goals of the Paris pact, with an aggressive timeline matched by only a few other cities, including Seattle, Copenhagen and Sydney. Even as world leaders have dragged their feet, taking 21 frustrating years and annual conferences to finally set some climate goals,  cities like Fort Collins have charged ahead, determined to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid ecological catastrophe. 

The city passed its first action plan and started measuring its emissions in 1999. With its purple political background and acknowledged need to wean itself from coal power, Fort Collins could serve as a blueprint for other, similarly sized communities. Among the 282 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2014, 149 had committed to cut greenhouse gases. Some cities, including Boulder, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, work with various networks, such as the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). “Cities are where this work is actually happening,” says J.R. Killigrew, membership coordinator for the ICLEI’s U.S. branch. 

What “this work” is depends on each city and its resources, but analysts, advisers and activists all point out that cities acting on climate change have begun by creating an essential alliance between government, business and citizens. “You need your government to put a strong policy in place,” says Coreina Chan, a manager with the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, which has consulted with Fort Collins and other cities on climate-action programs. “You need, at least, the beginnings of a strong enterprise or commercial interest. And, most pivotally, you need individuals engaged.” 

In Fort Collins, early climate-action policies developed in response to civic pressure. The grassroots Fort Collins Sustainability Group prodded the city in the mid-2000s to create an advisory climate task force and update its climate plan when efforts to hit reduction targets faltered. When the city revisited its plan a few years ago, activists again backed the accelerated timeline developed by the Rocky Mountain Institute. “An engaged populace is critical,” says Kevin Cross, a Fort Collins climate activist and founding member of the sustainability group, who believes that citizen involvement has reduced local political resistance. 

Even though the city’s last four mayors have all leaned to the right politically, they have all generally supported climate action. Current Mayor Wade Troxell, a Republican and engineering professor at CSU, was among 27 mayors who penned a letter to President Obama this June, asking him to “fight for the strongest possible climate agreement” in Paris and “for federal action to establish binding national greenhouse gas emissions reductions here at home.” While other politically fraught issues, from a city fracking moratorium to relaxed public-nudity laws, have recently split the council, it unanimously approved the aggressive new climate-action plan this spring.

The West’s future carbon-neutral cities tend to have other things in common besides bold climate plans. Fort Collins, Seattle and Palo Alto, California, all benefit from clean-energy and tech businesses and nearby universities willing to partner with local governments or test-drive new technologies, such as smart grids and metering to closely monitor and manage buildings’ energy efficiency and use, and distributed, renewable energy generation, compared with centralized power sources. Professors or spinoff companies are available to assist with pilot projects for energy, transportation or building innovations. Cities with these advantages are more likely to enact climate-action plans, a selling point for attracting new, climate-conscious residents, ICLEI’s Killigrew says.

Cities with their own municipal utilities — as opposed to those who rely on investor-owned utilities with shareholders, such as Xcel or Pacific Gas & Electric — have a major leg up when it comes to climate action. “Because the utility is linked to the government,” Chan says, “there is more motivation and a much stronger foundational partnership in terms of playing a role in increasing efficiency and renewables.” 

Seattle’s utility, City Light, leans heavily on hydropower and has been carbon-neutral since 2005. The city, which also boasts one of the nation’s most progressive green-building codes for new construction, has an ambitious new climate plan that aims for citywide net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Reductions will focus on improving existing buildings’ efficiency, including plans to launch a building “tune-up” program, and expanding electric transit services and reducing vehicle pollution, even as the city grows, says Jessica Finn Coven, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. “Cities aren’t waiting,” says Coven, who attended the Paris talks. “And the message is getting out.”

In Fort Collins, the city utility offers solar-panel and energy-efficiency rebates that support local carbon-cutting plans. Meanwhile, nearby cities served by Xcel, like Denver and Boulder, have seen solar incentives come and go, and investor-owned utilities in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona have assessed special solar-power-generation fees to connect rooftop solar installations to power grids. To help meet reduction targets through greener building and efficiency upgrades, Fort Collins’ utilities department is expanding a low-interest, no-money-down home-efficiency loan program. That includes “on-bill financing,” which enables households to pay back large upfront costs over time through their utility bills, with the costs eventually offset by savings from the improvements. Those policy tools might not be eye-grabbing makeovers, but they’re critical to improving new and old building efficiency and to reducing energy use. 

Fort Collins Utilities also partnered with the Colorado-based Clean Energy Collective to build a “community solar garden” this past spring. Under a 2012 state law, Colorado communities can build shared solar arrays so that citizens who are unable to install solar power on their own property can still use renewable energy. The 2,000-panel, 620-kilowatt array on city land in Fort Collins can supply roughly 80 homes, and high demand for shares has the city looking for additional sites. 

This community solar farm in Fort Collins will reduce CO2 emissions by 39,500 tons over its 50-year lifetime.
Courtesy Poudre Valley REA

In California’s Sonoma and Marin counties, communities have circumvented investor-owned utility constraints through “community choice aggregation,” which enables towns to band together to develop renewable energy even while maintaining service through PG&E. San Diego, which recently became the first city in the U.S. to set legally binding reduction targets — meaning the city could be sued for coming up short on its future climate goals — is considering a similar policy. 

Of course, not all Western communities are embracing climate action or renewable energy. East of Fort Collins, where oil and gas development drives the Weld County economy, the county government recently proposed outlawing solar-panel developments on farmland, where many pumpjacks and wells are already located. Instead, Weld county solar arrays can only be built on industrial zoned areas, which are more expensive to lease — a restriction that, one company says, “kills solar” in the county

Local rebate programs and community solar arrays on their own aren’t enough to achieve carbon neutrality in a few decades. Fort Collins would need roughly 420 more similarly sized solar gardens to eliminate the major cause of its — and many other cities’ — greenhouse-gas pollution: coal power

Under its new plan, Fort Collins aims for gradual 20 percent carbon reductions by 2020, relying on new and expanded local programs. However, by 2030 the city must lower emissions to 80 percent of 2005 levels. “It’s a very steep ascent,” Lucinda Smith, director of Fort Collins’ environmental services department, says. 

Steep, and also expensive: The city’s 2015 climate plan estimates a $300 million tab just through 2020 to launch or expand programs that will reduce emissions. That almost certainly means higher utility rates or new surcharges, but could deliver between $2 billion and $6 billion in savings to the city and residents by 2050. Still, as Chan says, “The upfront capital costs are a big pill to swallow.” 

Ross Cunniff, a Fort Collins city councilman who has converted a family SUV and a Porsche 914 to run on electricity, says the near-term costs lie in investments for cheaper energy and future transportation services, meaning that city leaders and activists will have to win over residents even as their bills go up.

There is another big challenge. Fort Collins is one of four communities that comprise the regional Platte River Power Authority, which is responsible for supplying local electricity. Most of that power comes from the 280-megawatt, coal-fired Rawhide power plant, north of the city. Current plans project the plant will run through 2046, but Fort Collins will need to phase out its coal use by 2029 — almost certainly closing down Rawhide ahead of schedule — in order to hit its carbon-slashing targets. 

The Platte River Power Authority has already added 60 megawatts of new wind energy and is planning another 30 megawatts of new solar for 2016,  as well as converting some facilities to natural gas. Other coal-dependent power providers are also converting facilities to instead run on natural gas. But the wholesale elimination of coal power will require political as well as technical jiu-jitsu. First, Fort Collins will have to convince at least one other community in the Power Authority to back aggressive climate action and shutter Rawhide sooner than planned. That means losing out on some of the state’s cheapest and most reliable electricity, and it could be a tough sell in neighboring Loveland, Longmont and Estes Park. Even if it happens, the communities will have to figure out how to meet their power needs through alternative sources. And that creates even more problems. Too much investment in natural-gas conversions could lead to methane releases that are even worse for the climate than coal pollution, Cunniff says.

In the end, it will take the combined effort of cities and the federal government to tackle emissions questions. Binding targets, whether through local plans like San Diego’s, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, or an international agreement, could go a long way toward nudging utilities and power providers to make tough and pricey decisions in the next few decades. That might also guarantee that cities’ ambitious climate goals are more than just lofty proclamations. So even as the world is looking to cities, Cunniff says, the cities are hoping for action from the federal government, via a carbon tax or other tool that would require power authorities and utilities to support local visions for a carbon-neutral 2050.

“Not to imply it’s easy, but this isn’t like curing cancer,” Cunniff says. “I would rather aim high and not quite make the mark, versus aiming low and legitimately being blamed for not doing enough. I want future generations to view us the right way.”

Joshua Zaffos is a correspondent for High Country News, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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