Getting to 100? An Ambitious Goal for Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia
“This is a pivotal moment,” exclaims Taylor Bennett, outreach coordinator for the Virginia Sierra Club. “Change is starting to happen like a windmill starting to turn.” She is referring both to the global movement to stop climate change and to the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, for which 17 U.S. cities so far have committed to 100% clean energy. Indeed, four cities have already met this target: Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; Columbia, Maryland; and Greensburg, Kansas. Bennett is committed to fighting for this ambitious goal in Arlington County and Alexandria, Virginia by 2035.
Arlington and Alexandria already have strong environmental commitments, and Bennet hopes they can be among the cutting-edge cities that lead the way, spurring “a shift in culture,” so that “commitment to 100% renewable becomes the new standard.”
Yet achieving 100% renewable electricity is “immensely challenging” in localities where there is little support at the state level, explains John Morrill, Energy Manager of Arlington County. “Virginia is a limited home rule state,” he says, meaning that “the county has few mandates at its disposal.” Virginia lacks a Renewable Portfolio Standard, a requirement that utilities provide a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. In nearby Maryland and Washington, DC, which do have such requirements, there is “a robust market for renewables, including solar and wind. We don’t have that market incentive.”
In addition, Arlington lacks a steady source of renewable power that would provide energy when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Two of the four localities that have achieved 100% renewable have done so with a large assist from hydropower, which operates day and night. The third, Greenburg, Kansas, relies on strong local wind and geothermal, while the fourth, Columbia, Maryland, buys wind power from elsewhere. Still, Dean Amel, chair of the local Sierra Club group, is optimistic, stating that “as batteries get cheaper and more efficient and as the cost of wind and solar continue to decline, I think you’ll see renewables gain a cost advantage over fossil fuels.”
However, to Morrill handling energy intermittency “is one of the huge questions. There’s little doubt that energy storage would need to be robust with a goal of 100% renewable.” He adds that “solar and wind farms may be distant from Arlington, but there is still need for energy storage because of intermittency.”
Amel concurs that “In Arlington we face some unique issues, and don’t have as much control as a lot of other localities.” Nevertheless, he sees such an ambitious goal as important given the existential challenge of climate change. He also believes that the goal, while tough, is attainable. “Focusing on 100% renewable electricity by 2035 is a little easier than other” areas, says Amel, “such as transportation.” Indeed, clean electricity will benefit the transportation system as it becomes increasingly electrified.
Bennett adds that the process is just beginning. “We want to really engage the public voice with decision makers,” she says. “We’re not coming to the table with a presupposed kind of plan; we want to be active.” Ready for 100 can evolve as circumstances change.
For Bennett, one of the strengths of Ready for 100 is that, although it’s a national campaign, it is advocated locally, with tremendous flexibility. The local focus, she says, “really helps us to address specific renewable energy needs.” Furthermore, she explains, “it is very important that energy comes from the local grid.”
Nevertheless, without technological breakthroughs, renewable energy for Arlington and Alexandria will have to be imported. “When the Sierra Club speaks of 100% renewables for Arlington, even they are not thinking it’s all going to be in Arlington,” says Morrill. “We’re a city of 220,000 people in 26 square miles.”
Amel, nevertheless, believes that technological breakthroughs will make the goal possible. He points to “cladding buildings and windows, making walls solar collectors” as among the ground-breaking technologies that will help, as well as the possibility of new battery technology. Tesla, for instance, is moving aggressively to provide solar storage batteries. Even if the technology proves insufficient within the borders of Arlington, the 100% goal can be reached through “purchase agreements with wind farms and solar farms elsewhere,” Amel says.
The campaign is building on localities with strong environmental traditions. Arlington is nationally known as an innovator in smart growth, which fights sprawl, encourages public transit, and gets people out of cars. And both Arlington and Alexandria have aggressive clean energy programs.
Arlington’s program calls for a 75% reduction of carbon emissions and a 50% reduction of total energy by 2050. Despite a lack of state support, Arlington is employing a variety of efforts to fulfill its plan: installing solar panels on schools and county buildings, encouraging solar coops and geothermal heat pumps, providing energy efficiency libraries, and giving rebates on home energy upgrades. The county’s newest school, Discovery, is already net zero emissions, with three more planned. Such projects “demonstrate that net zero buildings are feasible” to the private sector, says Amel, encouraging the spread of solar.
Education and incentives can further spread solar to individual households. Yet larger residential buildings can be a problem. Amel points out that “the county has already mapped all large roofs to see where solar makes the most sense, and is contacting landlords of those buildings.” It’s all about making renewable energy an investment that’s hard to turn down.
It is also critical to ensure that every unit of electricity goes as far as possible. Morrill emphasizes that “energy efficiency is just as important as a source of electricity in terms of reducing our footprint” as is the energy source. “Energy efficiency and renewables need to go together like peanut butter and jelly.”
Like Arlington, Alexandria has an aggressive environmental plan. Its Eco-City program is intended to nourish an environmentally sustainable city, with 48 goals and 353 actions encompassing everything from transportation to water flow to energy efficiency and renewable energy. The plan also calls for “80% of the City’s energy portfolio” to “consist of clean, renewable energy sources by 2050, with greenhouse gas emissions reduced 80% from 2005.
Bennett points out that “the Ready for 100 campaign is happening in the context of a world post Paris climate talks,” and that “around the world, localities are stepping up to take the lead on renewable energy.” Arlington and Alexandria have an admirable history. Now the Sierra Club and its allies hope for an even stronger plan to prove that 100% clean energy can be done. It would be “nice to have a jurisdiction like Arlington or Alexandria, close to the capital with a lot of visibility” achieve net zero emissions, says Amel. By building on past success, but never being satisfied, he and Bennett hope that northern Virginia can become a (solar) beacon to the world, showing that, yes we can achieve 100% clean energy.