100% RE Cities: The Hot Topic

#GO100RE, #SustainableUrbanisation, #SmartCities: Key words which are triggering plenty of discussions, as it was the case of the Smart City Expo Casablanca, which took place in May 18-19, 2016 to discuss urban sustainability futures and policies to break down barriers towards green cities. And there is more to come throughout the year such as the Climate Chance 2016 and Habitat III.

But, what’s all the fuss about?

At the moment, our cities function as a linear system, where food, energy and goods flow into the city as resources, and flow out of the city as organic waste, inorganic waste and greenhouse gas emissions. The result? A steady increase of global CO2 emissions, hitting already more than 400 parts per million, which results in climate change.

But cities are also exposed to the risk of climate change that they create themselves. So how do we get back on track?  And what’s the role of cities? We can’t just do less damage; we have to repair the damage. We have to put cities on track of a circular and regenerative urban development, aiming to create cities that mimic nature’s system.

In nature there is no such thing as waste. All waste becomes organic nutrients for new growth. In a similar way, a city should not only consume resources but it should also contribute to producing and regenerating the resources it consumes. Materials and goods from the region are prioritised. Waste is re-defined as a by-product that can always be recycled or reused in another processes. Water is also recycled or treated before discharged into natural water bodies. Organic waste is treated and used as soil fertiliser. And energy comes from local renewable energy sources.

In a nutshell, we need a profound and urgent shift in the way we produce and use energy. Fortunately, more and more cities are embarking on this regenerative vision and are pledging to go 100% RE. This was just recently evidenced at The Climate Summit for Local Leaders which took place in December 2015 in the framework of COP21.

Cities are not waiting for nation states to give us the solution. They are becoming pioneers in promoting sustainable development and fighting climate change. And they are going beyond nation states commitments.Examples are countless across the world. In Germany there are already more than 144 cities and regions aiming for 100% RE. And examples can be found in every corner of the world: Vancouver, San Diego, San Francisco, Aspen, Frankfurt, Munich, Copenhagen, Malmö, Byron, Canberra, Sydney, Agadir, Kasese, etc.

Setting the 100% RE target is likely to be the hardest steps for some cities, due to the political support needed. But it is essential to catalyse action, provide a mandate for action, helping streamline the process, attract investment, and improve coordination across multiple different actors and sectors. Once the target is being set, cities have to identify specific policiesthat will help them achieve their objective.

During the Smart City Expo Casablanca, some recommendations were particularly stressed out to start 100% RE city initiatives and break down barriers:

1. Make energy efficiency a top priority. No region will meet its 100% RE target without simultaneously improve its energy efficiency, particularly in the two big users of energy in the city: buildings and transport.

For example, Vancouver aims at reducing city-wide building energy demand by about one-third over 2014 levels. They’re also prioritising mix-use and walkable communities that are well served by transit to reduce car-dependency. In Hamburg, the city-district of Wilhelmsburg aiming at 100% RE by 2050 is placing a strong emphasis on energy-efficiency retrofitting of existing building stock as a means to reducing heating demand. Moreover, the city is creatively exploiting abandoned spaces.  A flak bunker ruin has been converted into an eco-power plant, which will generate approximately 22,500 MWh of heat, nearly 3,000 MWh of electricity. This will meet the heating needs of around 3,000 households and the electricity needs of about 1,000 households. Further, a landfill has been transformed into an energy hill with wind turbines.

2. Maximise opportunities for co-creation, citizen participation and the development of new business models. The key to successful implementation is to share the benefits of decentralized and modern power generation throughout society by including citizens and communities in the process. This will avoid “not in my backyard attitudes”.

In Poland, private companies and municipalities established the first energy cooperative in 2014 in reaction to high electricity prices: Spółdzielnia Nasza Energia (Cooperative Our Energy). It intends to use renewables to provide electricity and heating for local consumers and “Every individual person or company can be member of cooperative and creating with us the biggest autonomic grid in Europe”.

They city of San Diego introduced a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) programme to be able to purchase the electricity directly from the various producers and sell it to residents and businesses. In the past, the local utility SDG&E purchased electricity directly from the various producers (gas, wind, solar, etc.) and then sold it to consumers. Through this scheme, the revenues from energy sales now remains within the community budget and can be channelled to fund local energy efficiency and RE projects.

And in Australia, the Australian Capital Territory is proud to have developed a nation-leading reverse-auction framework, which has attracted AUD $400 million local investments in the auctioning process, and has brought the initial target of 100% by 2025 forward by five years. This is astonishing if one considers that in 2013, merely 47MW renewable energy was produced within the ACT.

3. Institutionalise frameworks that enhance coordination between governance levels as well as between sectors.

The structural shift that is required to achieve 100% RE will not be able to be tackled by one single stakeholder  or  by  one  particular  sector  but  instead  must  be  a  collaborative  effort  built  upon  a  multi-stakeholder  alliance. Cooperation and synergies across levels of governance and parties is therefore crucial. This is why the city of Agadir, aiming to go 100% RE, has been increasingly lobbying for regulatory reform at the national level to allow for independent energy producers (such as municipalities) to feed low and medium voltage power gained from RE into the national grid in Morocco.

It is encouraging that, despite the frequent struggle from cities to work jointly and cohesively with national governments, they are leading the way through smart and pioneering approaches. The action is already happening. But this approach needs policy coherence across governance. National governments need to ensure that the right policy frameworks are in place to effectively harness the role of cities in the energy transition towards 100% RE.

The fact that the Smart City conference took place in Morocco, the host country for COP22 might be a good signal that nation states are aware of the role mayors can play in the energy transition. However, if this is not the case, there is still room to make the case during the year. Next step for this: Climate Chance 2016.