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The Role of Renewable Energy in Resilient Cities

Session leaders

  • Luciana Nery, Undersecretary of Innovation of Management, City of Niterói, Brazil (Presentation)
  • Steve Nicholas, Vice President of US Programs, Institute for Sustainable Communities
  • Sharon Wright, Sustainability Manager, Mayor’s Office, City of St. Petersburg


Representatives from two different municipalities framed this dialogue: Sharon Wright of St. Petersburg, Florida, and Luciana Nery, formerly of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The cities, both coastal, are deeply committed to resilience planning. St. Petersburg recently set a 100% renewable energy target for its electricity needs.

St. Petersburg, Florida

The first Office of Sustainability in “St. Pete” was created two years ago; until then, the City had neither developed a traditional sustainability or resilience plan, nor conducted a greenhouse gas emissions inventory or climate action plan. St. Petersburg is already experiencing extreme weather and has observed sea level rise higher than the IPCC had projected. St. Petersburg joined member of the U.S. Green Council’s STAR Communities Program, which benchmarks sustainability of cities using a data-driven approach. In 2016, the City Council committed to a goal of achieving 100% clean energy, as part of the Ready for 100 campaign.

The City is preparing to develop an Integrated Sustainability Action Plan (ISAP), which combines sustainability, resilience, and 100% renewable energy. To do so, St. Petersburg has set out to first understand how much energy its community uses. The ISAP steps require that the city collaborate in new ways with the private utility, which is unusual in the political setting of Florida’s energy policies. The ISAP will also use the STAR Communities platform to prioritize policies and projects across city departments, and it will fold in results of studies on rising sea levels and low-lying plains to create a dynamic resilience planning tool. Consequently, it will support a marine sciences innovation district, which will help to brand the plan, and will set up a non-profit financing mechanism to foster distributed solar installations by residents.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“Rio” released its Resilience Strategy in 2016 when the economy was healthy, but Brazil is now in an economic crisis twice the severity of the 2008 US crisis. The first step in creating the plan was to identify where climate change is adding stress points in the city. Academic support was critical to help navigate the cascading effects of climate change, such as the occurrence of urban heat islands, an idea that was new to Brazilians. City planners discovered that climate change is impacting aquifers and water flows, causing water shortages, and that inadequate sanitation has left 55% of the Rio’s population without clean water. In Nery’s vision, “A resilient Rio is a city that values its water, builds for the future and empowers its citizens.”

Towards energy and resilience planning, Rio has both a near-term (2017-2020) and 50-year plan (Rio 500). The country relies on hydroelectricity for 75% of its power but lacks appropriate sites to put turbines, so it is turning to coal and natural gas. The strategic goals of the plans are to:

  1. Deepen knowledge and mitigate climate impacts;
  2. Mobilize Rio to respond to climate events and other shocks and prevent disasters;
  3. Provide high quality basic services through sustainable, resilient use of resources;
  4. Promote an inclusive, diversified, circular, low-carbon economy; and
  5. Increase the resilience of the population through greater social cohesion.

Nery closed with the question: “Is solar even an option if we don’t have sanitation?”


Participants broke out into table discussions about the intersections between renewable energy and resilience in their own contexts. Some of the ideas included:

  • Leveraging public awareness following a crisis event by linking the outfall of the event to the infrastructure solutions associated with implementing renewable energy;
  • Diversifying renewable energy resources (for example, Calgary is transitioning from being an oil city to being an energy city);
  • Engaging and communicating with people, with an emphasis on vulnerable populations at the highest risk of disaster, following shock events;
  • Improving net-metering programs; and
  • Using renewable energy where it is most available and strategically integrating it into the grid.

Participants also discussed entrenched economic and political interests that can hamper renewable energy and resilience planning, as well as the importance of addressing inequality.


The primary takeaway from this session is that renewable energy enhances resilience planning when it is developed with the community priorities at the centre. Also, every jurisdiction has a unique perspective. For example, in St. Petersburg the greatest planning concerns are how to deal with sea level rise and flooding and the City’s renewable energy priority is to support installation of distributed solar. In Rio, the greatest planning concerns are to ensure basic services like clean water and renewable energy would help provide basic services that are resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Participants recommended cities prioritize strategies to:

  • Raise public awareness
  • Overcome entrenched beliefs
  • Diversify energy sources, and
  • Integrate renewable energy strategically into the grid.