3 Ways US Cities Are Investing in Clean Energy for Resilience

Blue Lake Rancheria solar PV system, Northern California. Photo by U.S. Department of Energy/Flickr

By 2030, more than 145 million people across the world will be impacted by flooding each year – many of whom live in coastal areas of the United States. Wildfires are growing rapidly in areas of the U.S. where they once were rare, burning more than twice as much land area per year from 2000-2018 than in the previous 15 years. The outbreak of disease, as evidenced by the current COVID-19 pandemic, is placing newfound shocks and stresses on U.S. cities. As unforeseen and dramatic events like these become more common, cities must increase their abilities to endure and respond to conditions that can turn communities upside down. Preparing for a resilient future is a responsibility that lies in the hands of state and local governments, who have an interest in building systems that are durable, avoid disruption and make economic sense to construct and maintain. In many cases, clean energy infrastructure can be a key part of creating solutions for resilience.

Losing power during a disaster can trigger cascading failures in which interconnected infrastructure systems fail, stifling core community operations and ultimately exposing the most vulnerable residents to disproportionately high risk. Distributed clean energy technologies, battery storage and microgrids can offer local governments a stable set of solutions, and are quickly becoming standard. The benefits of clean, resilient infrastructure in times of emergency have made themselves evident over the past decade, with renewable microgrids sustaining significant power outages during Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast and supporting rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina and various California wildfires through long-term disaster recovery investments. Today, we’re even starting to see resilient infrastructure widely implemented in broader community settings – for example, in the residential sector, powering assisted living facilities and public housing complexes.

Compared with power systems dependent on fossil fuels, clean infrastructure offers longer power availability during crisis, greater operational reliability, avoided cost of interruption, reduced peak demand usage and associated charges during normal utility operation, clean energy job creation and greater community self-reliance. The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe in Northern California experienced a number of these benefits when the community’s resilient solar microgrid saved four tribal members’ lives by keeping essential medical devices online during a recent multi-day utility outage. The microgrid has also reduced the tribe’s energy costs by 25-30% and added at least 14 jobs across the community to support the project.

Many local governments across the country, including Boston and Los Angeles, are already incorporating clean energy infrastructure into their plans to strategize for a more equitable and resilient future. But actually breaking ground on these projects takes forethought, intent and leadership at the city level. Cities are forging new partnerships and tapping into innovative funding sources to secure clean energy for resiliency. Here are a few of the ways they’re making it happen:

1. Cities Are Taking Advantage of Innovative State Programs.

California cities Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose increasingly face challenges to provide critical community services when their residents experience grid outages from wildfires or from the impacts of Public Safety Power Shutoffs, when utilities preemptively turn off electricity due to dangerous weather conditions and high wildfire exposure. To combat uncertainty when these situations do arise, all three cities have tapped into innovative state programs that provide renewable resources to complement local goals. San Diego used funding from one California Energy Commission (CEC) grant program to install solar energy microgrids to power its port’s marine cargo terminals, reducing emissions and enabling critical terminal infrastructure to operate for 12 hours without being connected to the grid. Across the state, CEC’s grants directly fund city governments to install urban microgrids for grid resilience and disaster readiness, including at key sites like fire stations and community centers in disadvantaged communities.

In states like Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, cities can access capital specifically reserved for community-based resilience projects through innovative state “green banks,” like the Connecticut Green Bank and Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank’s recently developed Municipal Resilience Program. According to the American Green Bank Consortium and the Coalition for Green Capital, state green banks remain a key tool at the forefront of green infrastructure and resilience-oriented financing.

2. Cities and Utilities Are Forming Partnerships on Resilience.

Utilities and communities are finding common ground by planning joint resilience efforts, identifying their shared risks and aligning on natural hazard responses and plans for the future. In Boston, the city and its utility, Eversource Energy, collaborated to build a new utility substation project on the South Boston waterfront. The project addresses the city’s growing demand for power while positioning clean energy infrastructure as a resilient solution for addressing storm surges and sea level rise, which could grow by as much as three meters by 2100.

The city of Portland, Oregon also recently developed a partnership with its utility, Portland General Electric. Working together, they created a first-of-its-kind solar-plus-storage fire station, a facility that is able to isolate itself from the grid to maintain critical operations in the event of outages. Looking forward, Portland is designing a large microgrid to support a local community center, which may also serve as an emergency shelter in times of need.

3. Cities Are Reinventing Municipal Funding.

Resilience-focused clean energy projects can be financed directly at the city level as well, often receiving their funding from new taxes on certain industries and sectors. Post-economic recovery, we can expect to see more examples of projects like the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, which was created by a local ballot measure taxing certain types of retail industry in the city and anticipates $44-61 million in new revenue for renewables and green infrastructure projects that can benefit historically marginalized communities of color that bear the brunt of climate change. Funds from the initiative will be used for projects such as installing rooftop solar and energy-efficiency upgrades in multi-family housing complexes and implementing clean energy workforce training programs.

Cities also have the opportunity to pursue clean, resilient projects through traditional annual fiscal and capital improvement budgets, which are sometimes bundled into standard municipal bonds supporting infrastructure construction or special offerings like municipal green and climate bonds. Other cities and agencies are implementing innovative bond mechanisms like resilience bonds and catastrophic bonds. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority is using such a bond to insure resilient power infrastructure that underpins the functionality of New York City’s rail services.

Creating More Clean, Resilient Cities

As cities lead the way in investing in resilient infrastructure and clean microgrid systems, they’ve also turned to philanthropic programs like Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge to help secure resources. But even with cities capitalizing on this support, the scale of investment needed to create a modern, resilient grid and equip cities to manage future risk still lags. One way this situation may be remedied is by renewing federal focus on resilience investment, driving projects at the local level. If the U.S. government seeks a better-prepared future and near-term economic growth, funding these types of projects will accomplish both. The federal government could amplify existing grant programs administered by the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

There’s no doubt that unforeseen natural disasters and other events are tragic: In many cases, human lives are lost and communities can spend years recovering. At the same time, these situations teach us about where our infrastructure systems are failing and how we can develop unique solutions that protect our communities. It is the responsibility of our leaders in the federal government, state capitals and city halls to integrate what we’ve learned from the past to spend wisely for our future. They must prioritize projects that integrate clean energy, are built to perform under stress, and stand as resilient pillars of critical community operations.

This blog was originally published on WRI’s Insights.

Alexander Dane is a Manager of City Renewable Energy Solutions for the U.S. Energy Program at World Resources Institute. 

Katie Pastor is Communications Specialist for the Global Energy Program at World Resources Institute. 

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