Today, the majority of American cities rely on energy generated by burning fossil fuels, but this form of energy generation isn’t sustainable. Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource, leading many city planners to speculate on what it might take to transition to renewable power. What will it take for any city to become 100% renewable, and what challenges will they need to overcome to achieve this goal?
Cities Already Going Green
While most American cities are still using fossil fuels, a few have already made the transition to 100% renewable energy. Greensburg, Kan., accomplished this milestone in 2013. After a tornado decimated this tiny town of fewer than 800 people in 2007, they decided to make the switch to renewable energy instead of rebuilding things the way they were. Today, the town primarily uses wind energy as its power source.
This accomplishment might not seem impactful for such a small town, but it was one of the first in the United States to make that transition. Plenty of others have followed, like Burlington, Vt., which moved away from fossil fuels in 2014, and Aspen, Colo., which did the same in 2015. Others, like East Hampton, N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich., are hoping to reach that milestone by 2020.
The United States isn’t the only place where cities are shifting to green energy, though the rest of the world remains committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States opted out of. Today, over 100 cities get more than 70% of their power from renewable sources, and 40 of them are entirely on green energy.
How to Adopt Renewable Energy
How can cities that haven’t started transitioning to renewable energy adopt this technology and become 100% green in the next decade or two? The technology is there — it’s just up to savvy city planners to make the leap and start adopting it.
The price of solar and wind technology is declining steadily as the hardware continues to advance. By 2020, it will cost roughly the same to implement solar or wind energy as it does to currently use fossil fuels, and those prices will continue to drop as we move into the future. Modular renewable energy will be at its lowest cost in 2020 as well, with solar costing less than $0.06/kWh and onshore wind turbines coming in at $0.05/kWh.
The trick is going to be approaching new technology with old ideas. In cities across the country, thousands of square feet of rooftop space goes unused, soaking up sunlight and increasing the ambient temperature of the area around it. Why not put that space to good use? Solar panels and small vertical wind turbines on these rooftops could collect energy and distribute it to the buildings below. The average city is anywhere from 35 to 50% pavement — and 40% of that is parking space.
Even parking garages, which usually have their upper floor open to the sky, can benefit from this push toward renewable energy with the addition of solar canopies. Not only will it collect solar energy and offset the need for fossil fuels, but drivers will be happy because the canopies will protect their vehicles from the harsh UV rays that can damage both the paint and the interior. As more drivers buy electric vehicles, solar canopies on parking garages could provide green energy to recharge their cars during the workday.
Parking garages aren’t the only place where cities can use cars or car-adjacent structures to generate clean energy. A company in Istanbul is pioneering a new type of wind energy by placing small vertical wind turbines in highway medians. These turbines can catch the wind created by passing cars and trucks, turning it into green energy.
This method is especially effective in areas that see a lot of large vehicle traffic. Traditional wind turbines take up a lot of space. While many cities are creating offshore wind farms, that isn’t an option for inland communities. These small vertical turbines can fill the gap when there isn’t enough space available to create full-scale wind farms.
Coastal cities also have access to a unique green energy source — the waves crashing on their coastlines. Ocean waves and currents are constantly in motion. The total power generated by the waves breaking on the coastlines around the globe is estimated somewhere between 2 and 3 million megawatts.
Many cities have already started to make the transition to using biogas for power — turning food waste into electricity. The average adult in North America wastes 231 pounds of food a year — but if we convert that food waste into energy, it could power a lightbulb for two weeks. Researchers at Cornell University recently discovered a way to “cook” food waste into a biofuel that could be burned to generate electricity. This process, known as anaerobic digestion, creates enough biogas in the UK right now to power more than 1 million homes.
Changes and Challenges
What challenges are city planners facing in this quest to switch their cities over to 100% renewable energy? One of the biggest hurdles is that many of the problems cities are facing today, like climate change and fossil fuel consumption, are essentially invisible. In the 1970s, the problem was smog from pollution — something people could see and experience firsthand — and that spurred the passage of several air quality laws that improved life in cities.
If you take a close look outside, can you see the impact of climate change or what happened because of all the fossil fuels burned at your local power plant?
Unless you live within spitting distance of the plant, the answer is probably no.
There is also the problem of cost. The current setup of our power infrastructure receives energy from plants that burn fossil fuels or, rarely, from nuclear facilities. It costs a lot of money to build solar panels and wind turbines — even more now due to the trade tariffs that add 25% in duties to steel imported from China.
The Future of Renewable Energy
Renewable energy is no longer optional, with climate change looming on our doorsteps. Collectively, we need to start transitioning to green energy sources as soon as possible. We’ve got a little more than a decade before the damage fossil fuels and greenhouse gases have done to the environment will be irreversible. The technology is there as soon as we’re ready to take that leap, and it will continue to get more efficient and more affordable as the years pass. There is so much unused space in cities, on rooftops and parking garages we could be used to generate electricity to help offset the use of fossil fuels.
More and more cities are working toward using 100% renewable energy. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll be able to say goodbye to fossil fuels — at least for power generation.