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Local elections are changing America’s energy mix, one city at a time

Renewable energy just won in a few local elections

Solar Modules
Contractors install photo voltaic modules in Hamilton Township, New Jersey.
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Local races can go a long way toward changing how Americans get their electricity. After yesterday’s election, both the city of Columbus, Ohio, and township of East Brunswick, New Jersey, are projected to pass measures that allow their local governments, instead of utilities, to decide where residents’ power comes from.

These “community choice” programs are boosting the growth of cheap renewable energy and are already prying loose investor-owned utilities’ tight grip on energy markets in places like California. More and more of these programs are popping up in states where they’re allowed, and they’re expected to grow beyond those borders in the future.

“We’ve seen a big grassroots push for state and national action on climate. In the meantime, cities and communities have sought out creative ways to make change from the ground up where possible,” Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate & Energy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, wrote to The Verge in an email. “Cities are also stepping up to demand cleaner and more locally sourced electricity, for themselves and for their residents.”

The measures that voters cast their ballots for in Columbus and East Brunswick yesterday allow local governments to decide what energy mix is available for their residents and use their collective purchasing power to bargain for cheaper rates. Utilities will still be in charge of getting that power to people but will no longer be calling the shots when it comes to deciding how much of that energy comes from renewables versus fossil fuels in places that have adopted community choice measures.

Community choice programs are one way of satisfying customers’ growing appetite for greener energy. East Brunswick’s ballots described the energy measure as a move to give its residents the “opportunity to select a 100% renewable electricity alternative” by 2030 — and stipulated that it would prefer purchasing from local sources. Existing programs in the US procured about 8.9 million megawatt-hours more renewable energy than state mandates required, according to an estimate from a 2017 report from the National Renewable Energy Lab. It shows how much local efforts matter when it comes to meeting the challenge of climate change, especially while the Trump administration has derailed national and international environmental efforts.

These programs can speed up the shift to renewables for a few different reasons. Some states have competitive energy markets that allow customers to shop around for renewable power sources. With community choice programs, individual customers don’t have to do that. The programs can corral entire communities into making the switch at once. And unlike utilities that might have long-standing contracts or investments in dirtier energy, new community choice programs have no such ties and can more easily diversify their energy portfolios. What’s more, renewables are cheaper than ever — in some places, even cheaper than fossil fuels. So even cities motivated more by cost savings than saving the planet could turn to cleaner sources of energy through community choice programs.

California, in particular, has seen a huge boom in community choice programs over the past few years. It’s partly a response to customers’ concerns about climate change as well as frustration with the state’s investor-owned utilities sparking wildfires and making preemptive power outages a new norm in the state. California’s community choice programs are turning to distributed renewable energy sources like virtual power plants that can make the grid more resilient in the face of threats posed by climate change. Californians in Berkeley and Albany are also awaiting results on whether local measures passed that would raise utility taxes for some customers in order to gather funds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for disasters.

In the end, how much these community choice programs actually boost renewable energy depends on what each community chooses to buy. “[Customers in a community choice program] have a stronger connection to the decision makers than you do if you have an investor-owned utility buying your supply,” says Jenny Heeter, a senior energy analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Illinois has the most of these kinds of programs, which already served more than a third of the state’s customers in 2017. Massachusetts started the trend in 1999, which then spread to Illinois, California, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. A handful of states are looking into passing state legislation that would also allow community choice programs. If some of the new state lawmakers elected yesterday have renewable energy as a top priority, they could set the ball in motion for other states to hop on the bandwagon.