How Does a City Get to Zero Carbon Emissions?

Even before Obama released his rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, dozens of cities pledged to become carbon-neutral. But how they will achieve that isn't always known.
by | August 2015
Somerville launched its first pilot -- hyper-local weather stations -- in May. (City of Somerville)

Eight years ago, Austin, Texas, set a lofty goal: Its facilities, fleets and leading utility would be carbon-neutral by 2020. Since then, as concerns over climate change have mounted, more and more governments have followed suit. So far four states and 34 cities have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 100 percent by 2050.

But how, exactly, does a city get to zero carbon emissions? That’s the question facing Somerville, Mass., which, at four square miles and a population of about 80,000, is the densest city in New England. Its mayor, Joseph Curtatone, announced in 2014 that it would strive to reduce its carbon emissions to a net-zero level in the next 35 years. “Basically when the target is carbon neutrality, everything is suddenly on the table,” says Oliver Sellers-Garcia, Somerville’s director of sustainability and environment. “We know that the things to start off with are energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. But when we think closer to 2050 and beyond, there will have to be huge fundamental shifts in how we use energy and transportation. So what can we do so that not just Somerville but other cities can make these big changes?”

The answer: the Somerville Green Tech Program. Already home to the largest green tech incubator in the country, Greentown Labs, Somerville figured that if it was going to be carbon-neutral by 2050, it was going to need the help and cooperation of the business community. So the city issued a request for information last October asking green tech companies what they do, what a pilot project with their company would look like, what they wanted to get out of a collaboration with the city and what their past experiences working with the city were like.

Based on the responses, Somerville officials realized their green tech program would need two components: pilot projects and, to their surprise, events. The businesses that responded said they wanted the opportunity to raise their profile by connecting with municipalities and entities that municipalities have good relationships with, such as developers and local manufacturers. “We also learned that there is actually a lot that cities don’t know at all about green technology,” says Sellers-Garcia, “just from adopting it down to how you implement these technologies in a city building.”

As a result, the Green Tech Program will act as convener, holding events to bring green technology innovators together with municipal officials and other industries. The program will also offer companies the opportunity to pilot their green products and services in Somerville. The city announced its first pilot project in May: The startup Understory, a weather analytics company, has installed solar-powered weather stations at two schools. The weather data gathered will be publicly available online and will be used by the city for purposes ranging from snow clearing to analyzing local climate change effects. The city also held its first event in June.

Ultimately, Somerville has three broad goals with its pilot projects: They must help with climate change mitigation, climate change adaptation and quality of life. Beyond that, Sellers-Garcia says, “We want at the end of this to come out with a replicable model for other cities. We are really interested in the knowledge transfer part of the program.”

So far the program has only cost the city staff time. Somerville has benefited from strong partnerships with local green tech businesses. They have helped the city evaluate potential pilot projects by zeroing in on whether companies will learn from the pilot in order to take the technology to the next stage of development or commercialization, and whether these projects line up with what the city can feasibly offer. “We don’t want this to be a one-off project,” says Sellers-Garcia. “We want to make Somerville an urban laboratory. It would be terrific if we could go from helping to host pilots to actually becoming early adopters.”