We Scoured the Globe for the Most Remarkable Alternative Energy Towns: Here’s What We Found
Electricity for lights. Heat for our homes. Fuel for our cars.
In the developed world, we take these things for granted.
We expected the lights to come on, the house to be warm, and the cars to start, whenever we want. And we didn’t care how.
It's true, we didn't.
Those days are over. Awareness and recognition of the downsides of fossil fuels have never been higher.
So much so, that it’s prompting cities across the globe to act through an embrace of alternative energy sources. Rather than waiting for a global solution, cities are increasingly acting locally and investing in renewable power.
In a big way.
Investing to turn themselves into remarkable alternative energy towns, stretching for aggressive goals to eliminate fossil fuels entirely.
CDP, formerly known as the Climate Disclosure Project, estimates that more than 100 cities worldwide now get at least 70 percent of their electricity from alternative energy.
CDP’s data is based on voluntary surveys taken in from these cities, which are on every continent except Antarctica.
“We expect to see even more cities targeting a clean energy future. Cities not only want to transition to renewable energy but, most importantly - as our data shows -- they can.”
CDP report on world renewable energy cities
Of the cities that are making the transition, a few stand-out. They offer lessons for citizens and leaders around the world, none stronger than this:
If they can do it, so can you.
Reasons Alternative Energy Is Important
One answer to the question is found in media reports in almost every country on a daily basis.
The world has awakened to the notion that one day, the earth’s petroleum and other types of energy stores may begin to dwindle. And when that happens…
And that's not the only concern:
There’s also a cost to be reckoned with in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Many scientists agree that the earth is showing signs of a reaction to a warming trend.
But even without stepping into that fraught political debate, it’s clear that renewables offer a long list of benefits.
Some of them, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists:
The shift is already taking shape. U.S. energy sources were more highly diversified in 2017 than at any time in the country’s history.
As the balance shifts, so too will the factors that drive how nations interact.
In other words:
The future of energy will change lives in ways more profound than the size and shape of the local power plant.
Alternative Energy Is...
Alternative energy takes on many forms, with a few sources getting the most attention.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “renewable energy is energy from sources that are naturally replenishing but flow-limited. They are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited the amount of energy that is available per unit of time.”
Here are the major types of renewables, according to the DOE:
Of these, the ones that get the most attention -- from the press, the public, elected officials and investors -- are wind and solar, followed by biomass.
According to the DOE, about 11 percent of U.S. energy needs came from renewables in 2017. And, of that 11 percent, the largest renewable sources are hydropower at 25 percent, wind at 21 percent and biofuels at 21 percent.
Wind involves generating energy from moving air through the use of large turbines. It’s a practice that actually dates back as far as 5,000 B.C.
Solar systems capture the sun and turn it into energy through the use of photovoltaic systems, according to the Department of Energy.
Finally, biomass is a broad term that contemplates using wastes from wood, agriculture, food and animal manure for energy.
These wastes are burned to capture and generate power. The reason this occurs is that the biomass “contains stored energy from the sun,” the Department of Energy states.
Alternative energy is taking over for more than just petroleum-based power sources. Renewables can also be used to replace natural gas, coal, and nuclear for heat and electricity.
Those sources, along with oil-based power, made up about 90 percent of the energy generated in the United States in 2017.
It is the cities of this country and the world that will play a leading role in the alternative energy movement.
The Most Remarkable Towns
In picking the most remarkable towns for alternative energy, we had a few basic variables.
- 1We wanted to choose cities around the world, to showcase the breadth of the alternative energy movement.
- 2The cities have made the most progress in supplying alternative energy to help replace traditional electricity generating stations.
Some of the challenges are:
Finding ways to utilize alternative energy for heat. It’s also a challenge for the largest cities to build alternative energy capacity at scale.
That’s why the list consists of cities with smaller populations. But as the movement unfolds, expect activity to increase in large cities.
Let's talk about alternative energy, eh?
Vancouver, Canada aimed high when making its commitment to alternative energy.
The target was not just to get all its electricity from renewable sources.
It was literally to become “The Greenest City” as expressed in Vancouver’s “Greenest City Action Plan.”
Going green in Vancouver led to a focus on three principal priorities:
Each goal connects to at least one metric that Vancouver vowed to meet by 2020.
For example, Vancouver has vowed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 percent over 2007 levels.
The city wants to “lead the world in green building design and construction.”
In energy, Vancouver vows to eliminate the city’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Progress is mixed. The city generates all of its electricity needs through hydropower.
The focus for Vancouver now is to increase the use of alternative energies for heating and for vehicle transportation.
And getting there is taking some innovative thinking.
For instance, Vancouver has pioneered capturing heat from sewer water. The city’s mindset in tackling the project: “Waste is a resource.”
Getting to 100 percent renewable is a big challenge for a city the size of Vancouver, which requires enough energy that you could travel to the moon and back 1,500 times.
But the good news is:
This approach has some unique economic development advantages in terms of allowing developers to build less expensively, explains Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver’s deputy city manager.
The developers don't have to have their own heat plant, so they save money on a boiler room — the square footage of that, the equipment. We run all of the heat exchangers, and they plug their building into it.
Sadhu Johnston, deputy city manager, Vancouver
Vancouver’s multi-layered plan emphasizes reducing demand in areas such as transportation.
The city has focused not on alternative fuels; instead, on making the city more walkable and creating resources for bicycling.
As a result:
The number0 of vehicle kilometers driven by Vancouver residents has fallen by about 36 percent through 2017 over the 2007 start date.
City leaders make it abundantly clear that the Greenest City Action Plan isn’t about arriving at a destination.
It’s about continuously improving with an eye toward supporting the planet.
Chilling climate change in it's tracks
It takes political will to commit to becoming a remarkable alternative energy city.
On top of that:
It also takes awareness and understanding of a region’s natural resources. And how they can be leveraged to meet the energy demands of residents.
Exhibit A: Reykjavik, Iceland.
This coastal city is living up to its nickname as the “Land of Ice and Fire” by tapping into volcanic formations to harness the earth’s geothermal energy.
More than 130 volcanoes mark Iceland’s geography, and as the Guide to Iceland puts it, these volcanoes define the nature of the land.”
Drilling into the volcanoes releases enormous stores of heat.
Reykjavik uses that resource from center earth to provide an estimated 90 percent of the island’s needs for heat and hot water.
That’s heat and hot water for an estimated 122,000 people as well as businesses.
The energy comes from five geothermal plants across the island.
And it doesn't stop there:
The abundance of geothermal serves other purposes as well. The city uses it to heat swimming pools and melt snow off sidewalks.
Iceland generates about a quarter of its electricity needs from geothermal, with the balance coming from hydropower, and a small percentage from traditional fuel sources and wind.
Wind is a new priority in Iceland, as this video shows:
The island’s energy portfolio more than covers the annual demand of Reykjavik of about 19.2-gigawatt hours of electricity.
The focus on renewables has delivered Iceland with a surplus of energy.
And that has brought more innovative thinking. The transformation has revived a long-discussed idea to connect Iceland’s power grid to the United Kingdom through a submarine cable.
Iceland’s story demonstrates how alternative energy can also provide downstream economic benefits.
The conversion to renewables means that Iceland can provide a lower-cost and more affordable energy.
Businesses love that.
Especially for its predictability.
As a result, the country has become a haven for developers, attracting aluminum smelters, data-storage centers, and other high-tech industries.
All from recognizing the power of what you have.
On a per capita basis, Iceland is ahead of any other nation in geothermal generating capacity and is a world leader in sustainable energy development.
“Iceland: a Renewable Energy Nation,” Iceland School of Energy
Getting more domestic
The city of Burlington, Vermont is recognized for many things.
A nature lover’s paradise on the shores of Lake Champlain
Founded by Ethan Allen and his brothers.
A strategic focal point in the War of 1812.
Home to the university of vermont
The founding of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
But there’s more to the story, as Burlington continues along toward its 300th birthday.
In addition to all that is Burlington:
The city also owns the distinction of being the first large U.S. city to convert residents to 100 percent renewable energy sources (or as close as anyone can get, given the complex nature of energy markets.)
The city’s path to an all-renewable sustainable future traces its origins to the early 1980s when it closed a coal-burning plant.
Rather than stay with traditional energy sources, Burlington chose to replace coal with a plant that generates energy from burning of biomass such as wood.
And here's what happened:
The percentage of the city’s energy from renewables took its biggest leap forward in 2014 when Burlington Electric closed on its purchase of the Winooski One Hydroelectric Facility.
Hydro now provides more than a third of the city’s energy needs, including some purchase from neighbors over the border in New York.
Besides the Winooski hydro plant, Burlington gets its power from separate wood-burning, wind, and solar facilities.
It also maintains a traditional gas turbine which exists to cover peak periods or other emergencies.
These sources help cover Burlington’s annual demands for about 341,000-megawatt hours of power.
More of their hard work shows:
Burlington has also invested in conservation measures, successfully limiting increases in electricity usage to about 2 percent annually.
There’s nothing magical about Burlington. We don’t have a gift from nature of ample sun or mighty winds or powerful rivers, so if we can do it, so can others.
Taylor Ricketts of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics.
Heading south, take a look
The power of the sun plays an important role in helping cities realize the potential of alternative energy.
Especially municipalities that exist a stone’s throw from the Equator, such as La Paz, Mexico.
La Paz, the capital of the Baja Sur California state in Mexico, utilizes several solar energy plants to provide electricity to its residents and businesses.
Converting to renewables was critical for La Paz and the rest of the Mexican state.
And guess what:
The area is outpacing Mexico in terms of energy growth. The region is experiencing a period of growth mainly tied to tourism.
Bringing solar online in the 2014 to 2015 time frame also helped Mexico overall move towards meeting its renewable energy goals.
The La Paz solar plants replaced a practice of importing fossil fuel based energy into the region to meet electricity needs. In taking the plants online, the region was also able to eliminate upwards of 45,000 tons of emissions into the atmosphere.
The La Paz solar farm is the largest solar installation in Mexico. It includes more than 130,000 panels converting the sun’s rays into electricity.
And this makes perfect sense:
The proximity of La Paz to the Equator made solar a logical choice for the region’s conversion.
La Paz is one of the best places in Mexico to place a solar farm, and one of the better places in the world. La Paz has a high solar energy multiplier, based of our near direct angle to the sun and the number of clear sky days.
“Largest Solar Farm in Mexico Online in LaPaz,” BajaInsider.com
Now, let's go to the other side of the planet
Basel, Switzerland is one of the world’s oldest cities, with a university founded in the 15th century.
That hasn’t stopped Basel from being one of the world’s most innovative and forward-thinking municipalities in alternative energy.
Residents and businesses in Basel run almost entirely on renewable sources.
In fact, the city generates 100 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
Not only that:
Wind, biomass, and solar address the town's other heating and other energy needs.
The aggressive embrace of alternative energy has allowed Basel to kick-start similar efforts elsewhere in Switzerland’s embrace of alternative energy. And this led to a country-wide commitment to green energy.
Switzerland voted in 2017 to phase out nuclear power in favor of renewables.
As with anything, Basel’s success wasn’t without its setbacks.
Developers abandoned a geothermal plan in late 2009 when it appeared to trigger a series of small earthquakes in the country.
One common thread among these remarkable cities is their commitment to continue to evolve their approaches to alternative energy.
Basel, for example, is now focusing on growing its use of solar. The city has established a fund for investing in renewable energy projects. The city is studying which of its buildings can support solar installations.
The goal is ambitious:
To re-imagine the city’s rooftops as one giant solar generating station.
The city’s focus is also on helping build homes and buildings with greater energy efficiency, to control the seeming never-ending growth in demand.
Basel has earned international recognition for its commitment to alternative energy. It even received the European Energy Award® Gold, which requires extensive and multiple orders.
The Energy Award Gold is the highest honor in the European renewable field.
Interestingly, Basel has figured out a way to showcase its alternative energy commitments in support of its popular tourism industry. Visitors to Switzerland are offered tours of renewable energy power plants.
And who wouldn't want to see that?
If that’s not innovative enough, Switzerland has also made alternative energy a focus of university research and is seeing its fair share of entrepreneurial activity.
Who would have believed that a city that’s been around for half a millennia would think of ways to store energy in concrete?
Check. This. Out.
All you need is a clear goal and a strong political leadership. The population will support this decision
Matthias Nabholz, Basel-Stadt’s head of environment and energy
Back to the old U.S.: you may be surprised
Resilience and determination out of tragedy brought Greensburg, Kansas into the community of cities making remarkable commitments to alternative energy.
Yup, you guessed it, Dorothy:
A fearsome tornado, marked by 200 to 300 mile an hour winds, swept over the city on May 4, 2007.
It left behind more than just some storm debris, and the tornado destroyed the city.
By one estimate, more than 95 percent of buildings in the midwestern town was “leveled to rubble,” according to a story in The Omaha Reader.
The community didn’t wait long to decide what to do next.
They would rebuild, and try to make some good come from the tragedy.
We wanted to make sure we got things that would be sustainable for decades, if not generations. It was this disaster that brought us to that thought process.
Mayor Bob Dixon told The Reader
Thus began a multi-year process during which the town, and homeowners as they could, invested rebuilding funds in new sustainable energy technologies.
Consume less. Generate your own electricity. Avoid the ups and downs in the price of fossil fuels. Thanks to their efforts, the people of Greensburg save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on energy costs, a huge sum for a town of 800.
Think Progress, Nov. 18, 2016
Greensburg now generates more than 100 percent of its residential energy needs from the Greensburg Wind Farm. The city sells any excess to other communities as renewable energy credits.
The path to 100 percent renewable required more than just new energy technology. The town created a roadmap where homes and buildings would also be built to use less energy than before.
And here's what they did:
New buildings were built to reach platinum status under the Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design (LEED) standards. LEED provides various certification programs as incentives for creating energy- and resource-efficient building.
The town also installed less energy-intensive LED streetlights and created a system for collecting rainwater for purposes such as irrigation.
Mayor Dixson is now a nationally recognized speaker on alternative energy issues. He often speaks about the principles the town followed in going green:
How Greensburg Become Energy Independent
Source: Greensburg, Kansas: Building a Model Green Community, U.S Department of Energy
The wind that destroyed Greensburg is also the wind that would make us energy sustainable.
Mayor Bob Dixson
Looking to the Future of Alternative Energy
The alternative energy movement has plenty of momentum.
But it still has challenges to overcome. And most of those challenges are economic.
Some of the challenges cited by the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Renewable energy infrastructure requires enormous upfront investments to realize the possibilities.
Traditional sources of power tend to be centrally located. Renewables need to be more geographically diffuse.
Existing players in traditional power markets are well financed; start-ups face an uphill battle getting businesses up to scale to provide power that’s cost competitive.
Opponents like to argue that renewable power sources cannot provide a reliable stream of power. The reality is the opposite.
Solar and wind are highly predictable, and when spread across a large enough geographic area—and paired with complementary generation sources—become highly reliable.
Union of Concerned Scientists
New technologies always face upfront challenges. In this case, innovative and forward-thinking leaders in some of our most remarkable alternative energy cities are driving us all into the future.
Have you visited a city that uses mostly alternative energy? Do YOU use alternative energy? Let us know what you think the future holds in the comments!