Americans may be divided on partisan and ideological lines, but on at least one issue they agree: Support for clean renewable energy just keeps growing. In a March 2015 Gallup Poll, for example, 79 percent said they wanted the nation to use more solar energy, while 70 percent wanted to see more of the energy we use come from wind.
While this kind of support is a relatively recent phenomenon, use of the sun and the wind for energy isn't new at all. In Let It Shine: the 6,000-Year Story of Solar, John Perlin chronicles the use of solar heating for buildings going back millennia. Even our modern technologies have hundred-year histories: The first photovoltaic array was installed on a New York City rooftop in 1884, and there was a thriving solar water heating industry in California early in the 1890s. And power from windmills has been used to pump water and mill grain since antiquity.
Use of the wind and sun has ebbed and flowed in successive cycles. One need only look back to the era of the 1970s oil embargo, when interest in alternative energy spiked, to see the boom-and-bust cycle in action. But things may turn out differently this time. Despite predictions that today's cheap natural gas and low oil prices would break the rapid growth of the renewable energy business, in 2015, for the second year in a row, the U.S. installed more renewable energy production than that powered by fossil fuels.
This interest in renewables is playing out across America's cities. This spring, for example, Georgetown, Texas, was cited in a report by Environment America and the Frontier Group as an example of a growing number of U.S. cities committing to a goal of securing 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. All in all, the report cited more than a score of cities, including Aspen, Colo., Burlington, Vt., Fort Collins, Colo., San Diego and San Francisco.
In a recent webinar, Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross listed a variety of factors that moved his city to set its 100 percent goal. "It was first and foremost a business decision," Ross said. "In the short term we were trying to mitigate pricing concerns and in the long term potential regulatory issues related to pollution from fossil fuels." Georgetown also found renewables to be an economic development tool. Even though the city is very red politically, it is finding that more and more companies want to be located in green jurisdictions.
As promising as this trend seems to be, however, it is a quantum leap to move from 100 percent renewable electricity to 100 percent renewable energy. Electricity represents only about 40 percent of the energy landscape and is mainly used to power our lighting, air conditioning, mechanical systems, computers and telecommunications equipment. The remaining 60 percent, sourced chiefly from oil and natural gas, powers most of the transportation sector (cars, trains, planes) as well as most commercial and residential heating.
As daunting as the shift may seem, however, the technology to make it possible is commercially available today. The Environment America/Frontier Group report describes approaches to make the leap envisioned by researchers from a number of organizations. "There's very little downside to the transition," says Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, author of several studies showing the feasibility of 100 percent clean energy. "We think this is a winning situation for everyone in the long term."
To accelerate the transition, experts list some key steps for governments at all levels: Maximize energy efficiency, build new renewable energy facilities, electrify as much as possible, and ensure reliability through grid Improvements (including micro-grids) and energy storage.
As with renewables in general, there is plenty of public support for specific approaches. A July 2015 Hart Research Associates poll found that a majority of voters were very supportive of a range of methods for speeding up clean energy development, including job training, efficiency requirements and programs, modernization of the electricity grid, incentives for clean energy, and renewable electricity standards.
Given the technical and political momentum, we can expect to see more city commitments to run on 100 percent renewable electricity. Each will serve as a valuable building block to achieving what not long ago might have seemed unattainable: a 100 percent renewable-energy-powered economy.