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Renewable Energy in Cities: State of the Movement

Written by Keane Gruending, Communications Manager

Renewable energy in cities took major strides in 2017. It was a momentous year in terms of ambition, with both cities and large companies making broad commitments to both renewable energy (RE) and deep emissions reductions.

Globally, technology and policy created both tailwinds and headwinds for renewables and efficiency implementation. What did 2017 hold in store for energy in cities? This article highlights global developments, reviews the past year, and includes a thought leaders’ outlook for 2018.


In 2017 local governments around the world continued to adopt ambitious energy goals. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States.

Now, more than 50 cities (including a handful of regional governments and one state) have committed to 100% renewable energy, according to the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign. While these commitments range from the aspirational to the legally-binding, it’s clear that local governments are pushing boundaries on jurisdiction around energy.

In June, the US Mayors Conference, which represents more than 1,400 cities, adopted a resolution in support of 100% renewable energy. This statement was both a response to the federal government’s stated departure from the Paris Agreement, and a vehicle to advance RE for local economic development. The resolution is largely symbolic, but signals that diverse cities are broadening their priorities to include clean energy.

The Brookings Institute highlights how local governments are reshaping energy governance: “The powers that cities and their mayors wield relative to other levels of government [is] changing quickly.”

This trend was apparent at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn. During COP23 the We Are Still In coalition, represented by 252 cities and counties from the United States, pledged to honour the Paris Agreement, despite the White House’s reversal on the accord. Also during COP23, a group of 25 international cities—from Austin to Barcelona to Quito—announced that they would seek carbon neutrality by 2050. With assistance from the C40 network, implementation of these climate plans would begin by 2020.

In Canada, the District of Saanich joined Vancouver, Victoria, and Oxford County in adopting a 100% renewable energy by 2050 target. Toronto adopted TransformTO, an ambitious climate and energy plan and became host for Google’s Sidewalk Labs. Ottawa moved forward on its renewable energy strategy. While there’s a long way to go, Edmonton could see residents begin moving in to its 100% RE neighbourhood as early as next year.

Other developments came from Asia: During ICLEI’s Local Renewables Conference in Japan, municipal governments signed on to the Nagano Declaration, an aspirational document towards 100% RE. The declaration cites local renewable energy as a tool to improve quality of life and provide for economic development.

Not to be outdone by cities, corporations have also stepped up their demand for renewables. The RE100, a group of influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity, hit a milestone in 2017; with newcomers Schneider Electric, HSBC, Vestas, and Anheuser-Busch signing up. One hundred large global businesses have now joined the collaborative. In 2017, Google announced it had purchased all its electricity from renewable sources.


2017 was also a year where influential institutions recognized the role of cities.
With a nod to Stockholm and Frankfurt’s work towards 100% renewable energy, the International Energy Association said, “With urban energy use growing rapidly, cities will be key to a sustainable energy transition.” Considering the IEA’s traditional emphasis on national matters, this statement reflects a change in thinking about local governments.

"If you want to do something about climate change, ask the mayors"

During Global Learning Forum 2017, the Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said, “Renewable energy, combined with energy efficiency, is ready to power the future growth of cities.” (Watch it on YouTube.) For its part, IRENA released the report Renewable Energy in Cities. This seminal document outlines how cities are moving to RE, and what future opportunities exist.

REN21, an association based at UNEP, provides a comprehensive annual stocktaking of renewable policy and trends worldwide. In its latest Global Status Report, REN21 reported “There has been an upsurge in cities, states, countries and major corporations committing to 100% renewable energy targets because it makes economic and business sense.” The group dedicated its latest Global Futures Report to the topic of 100% RE.

Moving forward, expect to see local governments higher on the agendas of international institutions and think tanks. This March, the IPCC will host its inaugural Cities and Climate Change Conference to inform a special IPCC report on cities and their pivotal role in climate change mitigation, impacts, and adaptation.


The cost of renewable electricity continued its downward march, spurring record levels of investment and adoption worldwide. Cost changes are rewriting playbooks for how cities look at energy. According to the IEA, which tracks global clean energy progress, the three stars of 2017 were renewable electricity, electric vehicles, and energy storage. Each saw breakthroughs in adoption rates, policies, or technologies. Still, transformative progress is needed in order for cities to achieve their targets. For example, the shift to renewable heating and deep build efficiency lag behind clean power.

Renewable electricity

From IEA’s Renewables 2017

Renewable electricity continues to sprint. Holding on to a decade long trend, renewable electricity capacity grew by 9% in 2016 according to IRENA. (More recent numbers will be available later this year.) Notably, jurisdictions in Asia, Africa, and Central America saw double digit growth in renewable capacity.

All told, with yet another banner year under its belt, renewable power accounted for almost two thirds of all new power capacity in 2016. This charge was by solar PV—which outstripped all other fuels, including coal—and other mature renewables such as wind power. The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director, Dr Fatih Birol, said, “We expect that solar PV capacity growth will be higher than any other renewable technology through 2022.”

Demand for renewable electricity also helped to spur job growth. The number of people employed in RE grew to a record high of 9.8 million people globally. Of this ever-rising total, solar PV (32%), biomass (28%), hydro (15%), and wind (12%) are the leading employers.

While it’s not clear how much of this growth in renewable electricity can be attributed to urban policies, utilities—especially in the United States—are learning to “cope with 100% RE goals”.

Electric vehicles

From REN21’s Renewables 2017 Global Status Report

Electric transport hit a major milestone in 2016—with an incredible growth rate of 40%, the world now counts two million electric cars on the road. While we wait for concrete data, BNEF thinks over a million new electric cars were sold in 2017, due in part to concerns around local air pollution. Led by countries like Norway, which is close to 50% market share for electric vehicles, and robust growth in China, EVs are becoming a common sight worldwide.

Countries are playing a major role here.

Last year, the United Kingdom and France made waves by announcing that gas and diesel-powered cars will no longer be sold by 2050 and 2040 respectively. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is pondering a zero-emissions vehicle mandate of 20% by 2025, a move that would have enormous implications for the global EV market. For its part, California is also laying the groundwork for a fossil fuel vehicle ban.

But cities together also made waves in boosting demand for electric vehicles in 2017.

Last spring, a group of 30 large U.S. cities announced that they are prepared to purchase 114,000 electric cars and trucks. The bulk buy would help to guarantee certainty for manufacturers and help build out charging infrastructure, paving the way for community adoption.

2017 also saw the emergence of another local government play: the implementation of zero emissions zones. Cities like London pledged a phased approach, with a zero emissions core by 2025, gradually building in stringency and geographic scope. In October, a dozen international municipalities signed the Fossil Fuel-free Streets declaration. The signatories, with cities such as Quito and Mexico City on board, have committed to make a major part of their city fossil fuel-free by 2030.


Growth in energy storage is also shining. Grid connected battery storage grew by 50% in 2016 (the latest data we have), according to REN21’s Global Status Report. Storage is a keystone for more distributed renewables, and a welcome ally for adding more variable renewable electricity.

Some of the drivers for growth in energy storage include the rise of integrated energy companies and growing attention from manufacturers, which have translated into much lower costs for batteries. Last year, the price of Lithium-ion battery packs, for example, reached a new low of $209 USD per kilowatt-hour, roughly a fifth of the 2010 price.

These falling costs are translating into the uptake of micro-grids and community-scale power, such as Tucson’s solar-plus-storage project, which is notable for its 4.5¢/kWh power purchase agreement.

Energy storage is starting to be looked at as a competitive option for managing peak electricity demand in places like California, and is gaining the attention of regulators and utilities for its resiliency benefits.


As much as renewable power is a global bright spot, energy efficiency in buildings and renewable heating are lost in the shadows.

REN21 says, “a renewable energy future will not be achievable in the absence of dramatic improvements in energy efficiency.” According to the IEA, the world added 50 billion square metres in new floor area over the last ten years, with only marginal improvements in energy intensity. Mandatory building codes are absent or weak in many jurisdictions and energy efficiency financing is largely absent. British Columbia has made progress on the former, including BC’s innovative Energy Step Code and the City of Vancouver’s groundbreaking zero emissions building plan.

Relatedly, renewable heating requires attention. Currently, heating accounts for half of global final energy use and is largely derived from fossil fuels. Development here has been undercut by cheap fossil fuels and a virtual lack of policy support from multiple levels of government, globally; according to REN21, only 21 countries currently have a renewable heating mandate. The cities of Reykjavik, with near complete penetration of geothermal energy, and San Francisco, with a new solar thermal ordinance, offer solutions for increasing renewable heating.


Standing at the doorstep of the New Year, I reached out to a group of Renewable Cities’ friends and asked what they’re looking forward to in 2018. Their responses are below:

Dan Woynillowicz, Policy Director at Clean Energy Canada

With more electric cars to choose from, we are likely to see continued growth in EV sales in 2018. We are also witnessing growing interest in rooftop solar. In 2018, we need to start putting those two together. If you couple ownership of an EV and producing your own power, you further reduce your fuel costs and you accelerate the rate at which you pay off the investment in solar panels. It’s a win-win. I hope in 2018 we will begin to see this approach getting more traction, through demonstration and education. Imagine if you could go to a car dealership, get information and ultimately purchase an EV, an EV charger, and a rooftop solar package?

Elizabeth Doris, Principal Laboratory Program Manager – State, Local, and Tribal Audiences, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Because we are on the cusp of a sea of change, I am most excited about two developments in particular. The first is seeing more experimentation around implementation strategies. Community Choice Aggregation got a lot of attention in 2017, and that will continue in 2018, but I’m looking forward to the maturation of other strategies. Second, I’m really excited about our increasing ability to use available data and advanced visualization techniques to inform decisions from a broadening group of decision-makers, so that we can enable a large number of stakeholders to work together to achieve renewable energy goals for cities.

Ken Church, Team Leader – Communities, Department of Natural Resources Canada

I’m looking forward to the inclusion of a carbon pricing in urban planning and decision-making on an official and formalised basis. Municipalities will officially be selecting a more expensive option (based on the avoided carbon costs) and adapting their planning policies to accommodate this change in thinking. In addition: closer ties between thermal and electrical suppliers.

Matthew Klippenstein, Co-host, CleanTechnica’s Cleantech podcast and Founder, Electron Communications

I’m looking forward to the beginning of the transition of buses and trucks (heavy-duty transportation) from diesel to zero emissions solutions, whether batteries or fuel cells. Tesla has shone a big spotlight on the sector, as it’s so good at doing, but every major bus and trucking company is readying products. Because zero emissions solutions are cheaper than diesel on a total cost of ownership basis (or will be soon) the switch to zero emissions in buses and trucks will be much faster than it will be for passenger cars. That’s really, really encouraging.


However you saw 2017, it can’t be denied that it was a momentous year for policy, technology, and awareness. What are you looking forward to in 2018? Talk to Renewable Cities on Twitter and Facebook, let us know what you think.