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Most Major Cities Perform Poorly With Clean Energy 

The 2021 Clean Energy Scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ranks progress in 100 major U.S. cities, and the findings show there’s plenty of room for improvement.

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San Francisco, Calif., received the highest ranking in ACEEE's 2021 Clean Energy Scorecard. The city scored high for its innovative transportation policies.
(Marka/Universal Images Group/TNS)
Cities have the potential to play a leadership role in efforts to reduce carbon emissions and slow the worst effects of warming. The more that national and international efforts falter, the more this leadership is needed. However, most large American cities are far from the leading edge of climate mitigation, according to the 2021 Clean Energy Scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

The rankings encompass the most-populated cities in the country’s largest metropolitan areas. One additional city is included in each metro area if it has a population of 250,000 or more; every city included in the scorecard has a population of at least 100,000.

San Francisco ranked No. 1 for the first time in this annual report, followed closely by Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. However, there are significant performance gaps between the handful of cities with high scores and the majority of large municipalities.

Only 14 cities earned a score of 50 or more out of a possible 100. The bottom 14 cities each scored fewer than 10 points; more than 50 municipalities had 30 points or less. The scores are based on performance in five categories: communitywide initiatives, building and transportation policies, energy and water utilities and local government operations.

Stefen Samarripas, local policy manager at ACEEE and lead author of the report, highlighted transportation, the largest single source of emissions, as a concern. “Most cities haven’t set a goal for reducing vehicle travel or transportation emissions, and of those that have, only a few show progress,” he said.

San Francisco, which had the highest score for transportation policies, earned points for such things as mandates for EV charging infrastructure in new construction; a community college pre-apprenticeship program that includes a focus on EV charging; policies that encourage travel by transit, walking and biking; and the establishment of a car-free zone in the downtown area.
ACEEE's 2021 scorecard included an expanded look at attention to equity in energy programs. It found that many cities are underperforming in this area. (ACEEE)

Equitable Energy Systems

The more-than-200-page report includes examples of policies and practices that can improve programs in each of the areas covered as well as strategies employed by the high-scoring cities in each category. “It’s a way for cities to see what other cities are doing,” says Samarripas. “If there’s a policy or program that they might be unfamiliar with, we’ve taken the step of explaining why it would be important to pursue it.”

The federal government is making advances in emphasizing race and social equity in energy policy and funding, says Samarripas, but cities also need to ensure that their programs have benefit for marginalized communities. The 2021 scorecard includes more ways that cities can earn points for equity-driven clean energy efforts, but overall, cities across the country did not score well.

In fact, more than 20 cities received one point or less out of a possible 19 for the racial and social equity of their clean energy strategies. The equity actions for which cities most often received credit include low-income and multifamily energy efficiency programs, subsidized access to efficient transportation and low-income housing near transit stops.

Minneapolis scored the highest, with 12 points. Its efforts range from inclusive procurement policies, the inclusion of community members on advisory task forces and funding for building affordable passive housing on vacant lots. Its Green Zones Initiative, born out of the city’s climate action plan, supports economic development and health in vulnerable communities most affected by poor air quality and environmental pollution.

“For the most part, when we look across the country there’s not a lot of focus from cities on whether a policy or program or plan is going to be equitable,” says Samarripas.

A Year of Progress Ahead?

Among its other disruptive effects, the pandemic created barriers and delays to execution of clean energy programs in 2020, such as hiring freezes or difficulty getting into residential buildings to do retrofits. For some, the focus moved to planning; others invested in infrastructure such as microgrids, rooftop solar or community solar projects.

There’s a good chance the next ACEEE scorecard will reflect progress made possible by federal stimulus and infrastructure funds. In the course of doing research for the scorecard, Samarripas encountered many local governments that were excited at the prospect of additional funding.

The metrics ACEEE uses for its scorecard will be one way to track what cites are able to accomplish with these dollars in the coming year. Along the way, many could benefit from developing metrics of their own.

“Roughly two-thirds of the cities that we looked at had some sort of goal in place,” says Samarripas. “However, there are a substantial number of cities that do not track data about whether or not they're making progress towards that goal.”

Governing staff writer Zoe Manzanetti contributed to this report.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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