Author: Maria McCoy          Published:  6/10/2020       IRSR

Investigating City Commitments to 100% Renewable Energy

Local Transitions and Energy Democracy

The authors of this report are master’s students in the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) at the University of Michigan.

Cities of all sizes around the country are taking control by pledging to reach community-wide goals of 100% renewable energy. However, many of these cities are unsure of how to meet these commitments. Although the renewable energy potential throughout the U.S. is strong, cities are facing other types of challenges that are hindering their ability to progress swiftly to meet the commitment.

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Executive Summary

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising at an unprecedented rate and posing an immediate threat to human and ecosystem health. The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions is from human activities that include the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. Renewable energy serves as a viable solution to replace fossil fuel generation to create a healthier environment. Increasing awareness of both the necessity and opportunity surrounding renewable energy development is resulting in climate action at the municipal-level. Cities are physically formed around energy infrastructure, and therefore they have the ability to be powerful change agents in transformative energy policy and enact worldwide action. A number of United States (U.S.) cities are proposing and implementing bold sustainable solutions in order to combat the social, environmental, and economic impacts of climate change. Cities of all sizes around the country are taking control by pledging to reach community-wide goals of 100% renewable energy. However, many of these cities are unsure of how to meet these commitments. Although the renewable energy potential throughout the U.S. is strong, cities are facing other types of challenges that are hindering their ability to progress swiftly to meet the commitment. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in partnership with a student-led team at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, wants to enable progress toward local and equitable 100% renewable energy access and use by compiling recommendations and resources for achieving an energy transition that incorporates energy democracy. In this report, energy democracy refers to the implementation of participatory forms of energy governance and civic ownership. ILSR and the team also partnered with the Sierra Club through their Ready for 100 campaign to fully assess 100% renewable energy commitments across U.S. cities. The goal of this report is to utilize qualitative and quantitative data through a national survey and case studies to help understand the mechanisms that will best enable cities and their decision-makers to equitably transition to 100% renewable energy.

Understanding Unique Pathways to 100%

A broad national survey was used to assess general trends across city commitments throughout the country. Questions on the survey were developed with eight key mechanisms and tools in mind – Commitment Origin & Strength, Data Access, Finance, Municipality & Utility Structure, Policy, Resource Assessment, Social, and Technology. Survey questionnaires were sent to a total of 941 contacts (569 city officials and 372 community leaders) with 108 total surveys completed. Select results from the national survey are outlined below:

  • Top drivers for commitment: climate change concerns; care for the local environment; potential for financial savings
  • Top barriers to progress: lack of funding; lack of support from the utility; lack of expertise
  • Most helpful data resources that were not available: peer network of municipal sustainability staff; online database(s) of city renewable energy practices; metrics to evaluate renewable energy initiatives
  • Top sources of funding for programs: local taxes and fees; state and federal funding
  • Top methods for engaging the community on energy policy: meeting with representatives from the community; public hearings; workshops; social media; lobbying and legislation; engaging in regulatory proceedings and other administrative actions
  • Top city building initiatives: LED lighting; green building certification; public electric vehicle charging stations; on-site renewables
  • Most common ways to reduce energy burden: partnering with representative and community-based groups from low-income communities; providing community education and workshops
  • Most common efficiency programs: energy auditing; weatherization


Following survey and interview data collection, project findings and actionable recommendations were developed for use by local officials and advocates to address barriers.

General Recommendations for Cities

  1. Build partnerships, coalitions, and relationships externally and within the city to work together, partner on projects, and share resources, stories, and knowledge.
  2. Ensure disproportionate energy burden on citizens is being adequately addressed by engaging marginalized communities and investing in efficiency and clean energy programs directed towards these communities.
  3. Engage with other cities that have similar commitments to build a network of peers for sharing best practices, data, and metrics.
  4. Collaborate with community-based organizations and national non-profits that can provide additional perspectives and resources to help with the planning and decision-making process.
  5. Assess the use and allocation of local taxes and fees from the city and supplement with the state, federal, and fundraising opportunities (e.g. grants) in order to procure funding for implementing programs and technologies.
  6. Advocate for renewable energy policies and funding mechanisms at the state and federal level.
  7. Empower citizens to have voices within the energy system through education and awareness campaigns, engagement in energy policy and regulation issues, and support of community-based organizations.
  8. Hire dedicated staff and foster connections with other cities, particularly among dedicated staff, to maximize expertise in the transition.
  9. Designate a team or person entrusted to champion the initialization and maintain communication within the local government to ensure that all departments are on the same page.
  10. Develop an interim goal to help motivate staffers towards the transition to 100%.
  11. Partner with neighboring cities on energy projects, whether they have made the commitment or not – cities and residents tend to support renewable energy initiatives and could be willing to work.

Recommendations for Cities Contemplating a 100% Renewable Commitment

  1. Increase engagement within the city in order to mobilize the public to advocate for change.
  2. Track energy usage in municipal buildings and build a greenhouse gas inventory as a way of making future planning easier if your city wants to have a rough idea of where to begin before making the commitment.
  3. Communicate with your state’s energy office, if possible, to see what resources are available to you for easing the planning process.
  4. Formalize the commitment even if there is not a fully-developed plan in place – the commitment will help to inform the policies and choices that are made within the community going forward.


Read Case Studies and More in the Full Report

The authors, in partnership with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Sierra Club, have compiled this report to fulfill the requirements of their master’s capstone project. The students were also advised by SEAS Assistant Professor Dr. Tony Reames whose research explores the disparities in residential energy generation, consumption, and affordability, focusing on the production and persistence of inequality by race, class, and place.