Can Regions, Cities Become 100% Dependent on Renewable Energy? Absurd? Not Anymore

Strides are being taken to move entire regions, as well as cities, to 100 percent renewable energy, according to speakers at the May 13-15 Renewable Cities Forum 2015 in Vancouver.

Merran Smith, executive director with Clean Energy Canada, set the stage at the opening plenary by providing an overview of the growth trends in the renewable energy industry, making it difficult to deny that renewables are transforming energy policy and responding to climate challenges globally.

For one, global investment in R&D for renewable energy was bigger than R&D for fossil fuels last year, she said, citing a report, "Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2015," released in March by the United Nations Environment Program, the Frankfurt School and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Also, from 2013 to 2014, there was a jump in renewable energy investment of 17 percent, according to the report. “The trend last year was, arguably, even more impressive than it would seem from the investment numbers, because a record number capacity of wind and solar photovoltaic power was installed, at about 95GW,” the report said. This compared to 74GW in 2013, 79GW in 2012 and 70GW in 2011.

Difficult to Go it Alone.

While statistics like these have renewable energy proponents claiming an energy revolution is here, and industry analysts, such as Cleantechnica, saying the world has passed the renewable energy tipping point, others claim public policies and frameworks are missing to support the explosive growth.

Nations to cities are struggling to keep up with the demand and growth in renewable energy, including funding and innovations, with existing policies in place, most attendees agreed. Cities are having more luck, they said, but without national-level policies, it is very difficult for cities to go it alone.

Where Are the Bright Spots?

There are some bright spots. Recently, Vancouver City Council made waves, and history, by voting to support a plan to use 100 percent renewable energy sources, by 2050, becoming the first city in Canada to take this step.

The motion passed unanimously, and Vancouver joined other cities like Frankfurt which have established such goals.

However, representatives of other cities and towns in Canada said these types of goals may be impossible in the absence of national and provincial renewable energy policies.

Germany Making Strides.

Contrast that with a case study on Germany that was featured at the conference.

Many attendees from Germany shared their experiences and lessons learned with Energiewende, the term used to describe Germany’s transition to an energy portfolio that is predominately percent renewable energy—wind, hydropower, solar, bio-mass, geothermal, ocean power and energy efficiency.

Germany is well on its way to meet its goal with almost 30 percent of the citizens and landmass switching to renewable energy, according to Anna Leidreiter, senior program manager for climate and energy for the World Future Council, and Harry Lehmann, head of environmental planning and sustainability strategies for the German Federal Environment Agency.

Some 60+ towns are already 100 percent renewable energy with 80+ right behind them, they said.

Unlike other jurisdictions struggling with renewable energy goals, Germany put in place a national regulatory framework under the German Renewable Energy Act to support the transition to renewables.

One key aspect of the framework, which is also viewed as key to German’s success, is the guaranteed fixed feed-in tariff.

Under the tariff, homeowners to large industrial operations, in principle, receive a 20-year, technology-specific, guaranteed payment for electricity they generate.

Many observers say this is game-changing. This single piece of public policy allows investment dollars to flow, new advances in technology to get funded, but perhaps most importantly, it gives every German citizen a powerful incentive—free energy.

While there’s a surcharge for infrastructure development to enable the transition, it is expected to diminish over time as the infrastructure is built.

Renewable Cities: More to Come.

Renewable Cities, which was officially launched at the forum in Vancouver, says it will continue to leverage its expertise as a research-based dialogue convener to support cities through the transition to 100 percent renewable energy and energy efficiency.

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by Margery Moore