As droughts, heatwaves, floods, and freak storms beset the globe, the Trump administration denies climate change. Someone or something needs to step in to fill the gap left by the federal government. Often, that something is cities, which are increasingly centers of sustainability.
Washington, DC, lauded as the capital of the free world, is doing its part to be a role model. In November 2016, the city launched the Clean Energy DC plan with the ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 50% by 2032.
Responsible for 70% of climate-change emissions on the planet, “cities are the problem but also the answer, so DC is doing its part,” exclaims Tommy Wells, Director of DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). The Clean Energy DC plan aims to reduce energy use 50% by 2032 while increasing renewables to supply 50% of DC’s needs in that same period. To achieve this, the plan has three basic components: buildings, energy, and transportation.
Buildings are the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions. To reduce their waste, the Clean Energy DC plan calls for significant insulation and efficiency in new buildings as well as retrofitting of old buildings. New buildings in the District are already being designed to “platinum, gold, or silver LEED standards,” says Wells. (LEED is the standard measure of environmental friendliness and energy efficiency in buildings.) Today’s buildings have “higher performance insulation, windows that open to maintain air temperatures, tremendous energy savings” through computerized systems. The high-tech world of tomorrow is here.
New green building codes in DC mandate much of this, while market forces also encourage the shift. Conscious of climate change and wanting to save money, DC “tenants expect LEED, it’s the market,” explains Wells, easing this part of the transition. Already, DC is number one in Energy Star buildings and in LEED projects. The American Geophysical Union building, for instance, “is retrofitting to be net zero,” using a “mixture geothermal on wastewater pipes plus solar and high performance, harvesting as much daylight as possible,” says Wells.
Buildings are increasingly adding solar panels to generate their own electricity, moving rapidly toward net-zero energy use. This helps with Clean Energy DC’s second goal, to transition to renewable energy. Community solar projects are aiding neighborhoods upgrade to solar.
In community solar, individuals otherwise not in a position to go solar, due for instance to renting or income level, pool their resources. To spur this, in October DC enacted Solar for All, “intended to increase the amount of solar energy generated in the District and to provide the benefits from locally generated solar power to small businesses, nonprofits, seniors, and low-income households,” according to the dc.gov website.
Solar for All is a “simple law that commits DC to taking 100,000 low income residents and cut their energy burdens in half,” says Herbert Stevens, Chief Innovation Officer at Nixon Peabody.
An overlay of high income neighborhoods and areas with solar panels finds that they are essentially the same. Solar for All aims to break this pattern, to incentivize solar in neglected neighborhoods. “There is a sense of democracy in doing this,” exclaims Stevens. He credits the organization DC Sun with pioneering community solar in DC “as way of letting neighbors get together, purchase solar, allowing people to participate.”
Nixon Peabody, Stevens’ law firm, has long been active in spreading solar as well as energy efficiency. To help implement community solar, Nixon Peabody undertook a “very large pro bono effort—the firm formed a nonprofit,” says Stevens. The firm volunteered “hundreds of hours legal work devoted to financing and structuring it here in DC.”
In addition, the Nixon Peabody office in downtown DC meets LEED Platinum, the highest environmental standard. The building is one of three, all owned by Brookfield Properties, that have donated their roofs to provide solar panels that will deliver about $26,000 worth of electricity every year to low income residents. The project was funded by a grant from DC DOEE. Solar for All will now spread such initiatives, making available an additional $13 million to power low income residents with community solar.
“The sun beams down on all of us,” says Stevens. “We all should be able to utilize the benefits.”
Innovation in renewable energy is occurring throughout DC. Wells points to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest in the country, which uses biodigestion to generate energy. Waste that would otherwise release the pernicious greenhouse gas methane is instead eaten by bacteria and converted to electricity.
The Blue Plains plant is also in the process of installing solar panels on its previously unused roof space, further generating its own energy. Solar and other local energy sources add resilience, making DC less vulnerable to blackouts that might be imposed by disasters (such as those likely to result from climate change).
We all depend on energy in every aspect of our daily lives, from the annoyance of our alarm clocks in the morning to the streetlights that keep us safe at night to the flickering screens we pore over at work and glow over at play. Yet we also depend on energy to get us to our work and play. In transportation, DC has long been a leader, from the Metrorail system built in the 1970s to the bicycle network built in the past decade.
DC is also working to install charging stations for electric cars. However, “the greatest gain is getting people out of cars into electrified public transit,” says Wells. Buses are a key component here, and DC is experimenting with separate bus lanes for the busiest routes. In addition, the city is moving to electric buses on its circulator routes.
Yet DC’s Metrorail system is troubled, an aging and deteriorating system that has been underfunded for decades, leading to rising fares and declining ridership. Metrorail is the heartbeat of the area’s transit system and the Clean Energy DC plan will not meet its goals without improved service.
To get Metrail back to capacity, the region needs a dedicated funding system, “ideally a 1 or 2 cents sales tax,” says Wells. Indeed, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed a 1 cent tax, but regional leaders, notably Maryland governor Larry Hogan, have refused to cooperate.
A crippled Metrorail is not the only obstacle in DC’s move toward a sustainable future that avoids the worst effects of climate change. It is now acting with a federal government hostile to such efforts. Although it is easy to laud cities, in a vacuum their efforts will not be enough.
“The Trump administration is proving a disaster for collective environmental action,” says Wells. It now “has to be more on a city by city, state by state basis.” The Chesapeake Bay, for instance, is impacted by states from New York to Delaware to West Virginia, so a couple of bad apples can spoil the whole bay.
Absent strong national leadership, local and regional efforts will only work in those states determined to protect the environment. “We’ll end up where we were in the 1960s,” says Wells, where “your quality of life in relation to the environment will once again be determined by geography.”
Louisiana, for instance, pockmarked with gas and oil installations and with weak environmental enforcements, already ranks near the bottom of U.S. states in life expectancy, along with such laggards as Mississippi. By contrast the top states, Minnesota and Hawaii, have much higher environmental standards.
Still, cities are at the cutting edge of environmental protection. “The governor of Florida can say there is no climate change,” says Wells, “but the mayor of Miami has to deal with flooding.”
The hope is that cities, through example, can set a high standard for all of us to follow. The Clean Energy DC plan is now at the forefront of U.S. environmental action largely because it has to be.