100% Renewable Energy: Cleveland Sets a Big Goal as It Sheds Its Fossil Fuel Past

Cleveland joins more than 80 U.S. cities that have committed to get all their electricity from renewable sources. But in Ohio, that might be easier said than done.

Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Chris Gent/CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cleveland's climate action plan includes improving energy efficiency in buildings to help lower electricity demand as it shifts to 100 percent renewable power. Credit: Chris Gent/CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cleveland, Ohio, which has worked for years to reinvent itself as it sheds its industrial past, has become the latest major city to announce plans to shift to 100 percent renewable energy sources for electricity.

The plan stands out in a state that in recent years has been more inclined to roll back clean energy rules than strengthen them, and in a territory served by FirstEnergy, which has been a leading burner of fossil fuels.

City officials announced the 100 percent renewable power target Thursday as they released an update to Cleveland's climate action plan, which aims to reduce greenhouses gases to 80 percent below the 2010 level by 2050.

 

The plan discusses cutting emissions through improvements in energy efficiency and building design; developing more renewable energy within the city and region, including offshore wind power in Lake Erie; and increasing the use of public transportation and access to electric vehicle charging to reduce fossil fuel use. 

It sets a 2050 deadline for getting to 100 percent renewable electricity. But there are no details about how the city will work with its local utilities to implement the plan, an omission that raised concerns among some environmental advocates.

Map: U.S. Cities Aiming for 100% Renewable Energy

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said in a letter introducing the report that local leadership on climate is needed more than ever since President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement.

"This plan is about much more than climate change," Jackson said. "Implementing the actions in this plan will create a more sustainable Cleveland. By strengthening our economy, cleaning our environment, and improving the health and wellness of Clevelanders, we are building a thriving green city on a blue lake."

Transforming a Former Industrial Stronghold

Cleveland is where John D. Rockefeller and a partner incorporated Standard Oil in 1870, and where steel production and other heavy industry formed the city's economic backbone for decades. Heavy industry also took a heavy toll on the city, with pollution that became so problematic it led to a notorious 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River.

With the decline of heavy industry, Cleveland's population fell. Now, city leaders hope to make clean energy one its drivers of economic growth.

"The business case for energy efficiency and green buildings is strong," the plan says. "They have lower utility and maintenance costs, less risk from energy price volatility, increase property values, improve health and productivity of occupants, create local jobs, and much more." It also highlights renewable energy jobs, including in manufacturing of wind turbines and battery storage.  

Cleveland released its first climate plan in 2013. The latest version talks about the health and property damage risks to the region, citing Environmental Protection Agency data showing more frequent heat waves, heavy downpours occuring twice as often as they did a century ago, and annual temperatures in the Midwest on pace to rise 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades. To help combat climate change, the report calls for a 40 percent reduction in city emissions compared to 2010 levels by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. 

The city has a long way to go, however. In 2016, emissions were down only 2 percent from 2010, the report says.

Will Utilities Go Along with the Plan?

The goals are laudable but the deadline is not ambitious enough, said Sandy Buchanan, the Cleveland-based executive director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a nonprofit clean-energy research group.

"They seem out of step with advancements in the global electricity market" which would allow for a more rapid transition, she said.

Also, she notes that there are almost no details about how the 100 percent renewable energy pledge will be met. She would like to see specifics about how the city's two main utilities, FirstEnergy and Cleveland Public Power, would adjust their practices to make it possible for the Cleveland to meet the goals.

The city government controls Cleveland Public Power, but not FirstEnergy. Mark Durbin, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said his company was not part of the discussions that led to Cleveland's commitment.

Ohio's Shifting Views on Clean Energy

Ohio's state government has had an on again, off again relationship with renewable energy. The state took a big step forward on clean energy with a 2008 law that set requirements for renewable energy and energy efficiency, but the state has taken steps backwards since then with a weakening of the clean-energy standards and new restrictions on where wind turbines can be placed.

In the absence of state action, clean-energy advocates have been focusing on Ohio's cities, such as Cincinnati and Columbus.

Columbus "is considering the feasibility of several pathways to get to 100 percent electricity from renewable sources," said Robin Davis, spokeswoman for Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther. She said it's possible a goal of 100 percent renewable energy could be folded into its planning underway on a climate plan.

Cleveland now joins a list of 82 U.S. cities that have made pledges to get to 100 percent renewable energy, according to the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign.

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