This month we hear from Dylan Siegler, Sustainability Specialist with NRG Energy and STAR Communities Board Member. Ms. Siegler recently wrote “Powering Sustainable Cities: Key Trends and Pathways to Success for City Leaders,” a white paper from NRG’s Sustainable Energy Advisory. The white paper examines how local public sector leaders are tackling the challenge of implementing sustainable energy plans in a landscape where technology, policy, and opportunity are rapidly changing.
Thank you for providing such a concise and informative overview of the challenges and opportunities for communities when it comes to, as you say, powering sustainable cities. You identify major disruptions in the energy market, global/national, regional, and local. Can you discuss how the global/national disruptions create opportunities for communities?
If we start by zooming out even farther – into Earth’s atmosphere – the crisis of anthropogenic climate change has created a disruption in which many, from global political leaders to individuals in their neighborhoods, are searching for solutions. That has created fertile ground for collaboration, whether it’s the Paris Agreement or a city climate action plan. At the same time, the results of rapid advancements in technology – from the impact of natural gas extraction techniques on fossil fuel prices to the potential of blockchain to make electricity trading available at a household level – have given communities a dizzying assortment of energy solutions to choose from when they begin to address their climate impacts. The opportunity for communities comes in matching an appropriate solution, or more likely a suite of solutions, to your context. And leaders in the public sector have more than accepted the dare. For this white paper, I interviewed public sector sustainability and energy experts (many in STAR communities) around the country who recognize we are at an inflection point and are using it to their communities’ advantage.
You identify regional issues as the second major disruption and for many communities regional/state policy and/or utilities can be a hurdle for local renewable goals. What strategies or examples can you suggest for these communities to help them move forward?
I started my research for this paper with my own experience as a benchmark. As a former Sustainability Manager for the City of Austin Office of Sustainability, before I joined NRG, I recalled how vital collaboration with Austin Energy, the municipally owned electric utility, was to our success in meeting our climate action objectives. Austin Energy’s renewables approach was generally aligned with our sustainability strategy – but what if it hadn’t been? I learned a lot from speaking with leaders around the country about this. First, as professionals, they know their local regulatory and utility contexts inside and out, and that helps them see what’s achievable in their market. And second, that knowledge helps them understand when they’ve truly reached an impasse – and when it’s consequently time to work toward changing regional policy frameworks to support your community advancing sustainably in the long term. That’s what impelled Boulder, CO, to break away from its regulated utility. In most cases, however, drastic measures aren’t necessary – look to shared learning from USDN and STAR to facilitate a breakthrough, or find a grant to bring in an external advisor or fellow to explore the options.
The third level of disruption occurs at the local level. One aspect of this that you cite is how this past year hundreds of mayors pledged to uphold the Paris climate agreement and the US Conference of Mayors put support behind a target of 100% renewable energy for cities by 2035. What do you see as the biggest challenges to those commitments?
Cities have a real opportunity here to overcome the perception that these are simply symbolic resolutions, and locate resources to put toward achievement of this ambitious goal. It’s achievable if communities are willing to commit the resources to try and tackle the barriers head on – some of which are formidable, such as the common lack of jurisdictional authority over energy infrastructure. It takes time, and it takes money, both of which can feel scarce when you’re working toward sustainability at the community scale.
These disruptions have created a landscape that can make it difficult for local decision makers know where to start. For communities that are just getting started with developing renewable energy plans, where do you suggest they start? Who should be involved?
From my own experience and that of the professionals I interviewed, I can confirm that no successful sustainability initiative was ever developed in a vacuum. Bring in your stakeholders early and often. Many leaders in the sustainable energy space report that a regularly convened committee of interested (and importantly, economically and racially diverse) community stakeholders – business people, activists, experts and non-experts – can help define your priorities and vet your concepts. Is it more complicated that way? You bet! But that complexity pays dividends. This is the same approach we use inside NRG, where our sustainability work aims to be highly integrated into the business at large, increasing our impact. As a principal with NRG’s Sustainable Energy Advisory, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that third-party advisors can be crucial partners, especially in situations where specific expertise is required; a tie-breaker or disinterested voice is needed; or where staff resources are tight.
What are some of the best practices that you’ve seen from communities leading the way that could be adopted by other communities?
A few best practices rose to the top in my interviews. 1. Dedicate staff if you can – leading cities have at least half an FTE working on sustainable energy initiatives. 2. Be creative in finding funding (including for #1) – grants are out there. 3. Seek out the experience of your peers and be part of the latest research through forums like USDN and STAR. 4. Don’t worry too much about best practices! Focus on your community’s unique sustainable energy context and listen to your stakeholders. Together, you know your community’s needs – and can see the opportunities – better than anyone.