State and local governments across the U.S. are making significant progress toward sustainable energy through legislation, local policy adoption and the creation of new revenue streams to develop programs and implement projects.
One way these innovative efforts are decided is at the ballot box: in many states and cities, direct voter approval advances ballot measures and initiatives. These initiatives touch on a wide variety of sectors advancing the energy transition, including renewable energy access and standards, land-use regulations that encourage walkable and compact infill development and advanced sustainable transportation solutions. These examples illustrate how local voices have the power to influence the energy transition in tangible and innovative ways.
Here are some key measures and initiatives that appeared on the ballot this year:
Driving Renewable Energy Forward in the U.S.
Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy is an essential step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the worst effects of climate change. Ballots from this year could mark some big milestones in powering the United States with renewables.
Voters in Columbus passed ballot measure Issue 1, authorizing community choice aggregation (CCA). This new CCA program will allow the City of Columbus to purchase 100% renewable energy in bulk from an alternative supplier on behalf of all residents. It will allow the city to completely transition to clean energy by 2022.
The CCA program will increase the supply of clean electricity on the grid, adding approximately 700 megawatts (MW) of new renewables in Ohio. Not only will this clean energy generation help reduce power sector emissions, it will also provide direct economic and social benefits to the community, spurring local clean energy and construction jobs and attracting over $1 billion of new investment to the state.
Unlike many CCAs that source renewable energy from existing facilities or unbundled renewable energy certificates, Columbus’s CCA will help develop new renewable projects that hire locally, empowering the local community and creating lasting economic impact.
State of Nevada
In Nevada, voters overwhelmingly passed Question 6, a constitutional initiative that mandates a 50% renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The new RPS requires all electric utility service providers to generate at least half of all electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, doubling the current 25% requirement.
The 50% RPS will strengthen Nevada’s energy security, stabilize electric rates and provide clean power to the economy. Without significant fossil fuel reserves, nearly 90% of Nevada’s energy comes from out-of-state – mostly through natural gas, which is subject to dramatic price swings.
However, Nevada has some of the best potential for solar and geothermal in the United States. The 50% RPS will lead to substantial local geothermal and solar development, reducing Nevada’s reliance on imported fossil fuels. Developing a clean energy economy will also add hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars in investment to the Nevada’s renewable energy economy.
This citizen-driven initiative represents the power of grassroots organizing. In 2017, Assembly Bill 206 was proposed to increase the state’s RPS to 40% by 2030. Though it was passed by the Nevada legislature, Governor Sandoval vetoed the bill, voicing concerns about uncertainty in an evolving energy market. The lack of state action influenced a new wave of grassroots organizing.
A coalition of environmental organizations, the Nevadans for a Clean Energy Future Political Action Committee, felt disappointed by the bill failure and mobilized. They put the Renewable Energy Promotion Initiative on the ballot this year, leading to its passing.
Focusing on Urban Reinvestment and Location-Efficient Development in U.S. Cities
Zoning can have major impacts on energy use. Creating sustainable housing, especially in cities with dense populations, is critical to optimizing energy use in urban settings.
In the city of Detroit, Proposal N passed with a wide lead, intended to address the persistent problem of vacant buildings in disrepair. Detroit voters authorized the city to issue $250 million in neighborhood improvement bonds to demolish 8,000 vacant homes and preserve and renovate 8,000 salvageable homes. This will address 75% of abandoned homes that the Detroit Land Bank Authority owns.
Eliminating and retrofitting these buildings could spur community-wide revitalization with a ripple effect of community benefits, such as increased property value and investment. This effort also supports an equitable transition, as abandoned properties tend to be focal points for broader urban decay.
Retrofits are often a huge opportunity to advance the energy transition, as they enhance energy efficiency and deploy all-electric appliances that do not rely on fossil gas or petroleum.
San Mateo, California
In 2020, there were multiple ballot initiatives across the country related to upzoning, which creates opportunities to build more affordable and inclusive communities. San Mateo’s Measure Y, which is not yet called, seeks to extend the city’s current building height and density caps for another 10 years. Currently, the height limit for new buildings is 55 feet – or roughly five stories – and residential projects are limited to 50 units per acre.
If the measure does not pass, the city council will be able to propose increases in building height and density, which would help optimize energy use in San Mateo.
Increasing housing density, including multi-family housing, would accelerate the energy transition. Building housing within city limits gives residents more affordable options near places of employment and transit, thus reducing vehicle miles driven in single occupancy vehicles.
Moreover, density also makes housing less energy-intensive and enables lower per-household carbon footprints. Research shows that multi-family housing requires less energy both for construction and operation on a per-person basis. Multi-family housing also reduces energy associated with surrounding infrastructure to serve residents.
Allowing increased housing in San Mateo is especially important because new homes are not enough to accommodate an increasing labor force. Between 2010 and 2015, for every 19 jobs created, only one home was built. This has been associated with a growing affordability challenge, as the Bay Area is experiencing spikes in displacement and homelessness.
Building more homes in high-opportunity neighborhoods that are accessible to a wide range of incomes is key to enabling an equitable energy transition.
Investing in U.S. Mobility System Decarbonization with a Focus on Equity
The energy transition also relies on building sustainable, resilient transit systems that improve mobility and decrease reliance on single-use cars, which are significant polluters.
The car-centric city of Austin is notorious for traffic congestion. Transportation is the city’s largest source of particulate pollution, which is responsible for 11,000 premature deaths per year in the state. Since the population of Austin is expected to double over the next 20 years, alternatives to personal vehicles must become available to the public in order to support the clean energy transition.
Voters in Austin supportedProposition A, a 3.9% property tax increase to fund Project Connect. This $7.1 billion infrastructure project is a great opportunity to not only bridge the mobility gap in a rapidly growing city, but also to increase public transportation in communities that have historically lacked transit options.
The proposed infrastructure development includes an all-electric fleet of buses and bicycles, new light-rail lines, expanded bus service and a downtown transit tunnel separating rail from cars. The city’s progressive outlook did not stop with Proposition A, as voters also overwhelmingly approved Proposition B – a property tax to raise $460 million for sidewalks, bikeways, urban trails, infrastructure upgrades and road safety projects.
Voters in Seattle approved Proposition 1 – a small yet key transit ballot measure – by an 80% majority. The measure authorizes up to 0.15% in sales tax to generate revenue of $42 million for public transit expenses. In addition to infrastructure maintenance and capital improvements, a significant amount of this tax revenue will benefit Seattle residents by funding reduced fare programs for low-income seniors, students and workers.
The measure also extends transit pass benefits to essential workers, including medical professionals, first responders, pharmacy workers and grocery store employees as part of the city’s coronavirus response and recovery. While many of the nation’s transportation infrastructure projects were halted or slowed earlier this year, a vast majority of people in Seattle and Austin used this opportunity to prepare for an equitable, low-carbon, post-pandemic world.
Financing Cross-Sectoral Strategies for US Cities and School Districts
Many U.S. cities are mobilizing financing, including through taxes on fossil fuels and bonds, to help push the energy transition and other climate actions forward.
Long Beach, California
The coronavirus pandemic-induced economic crisis exposed stark racial inequality in Long Beach, prompting the city council to ask voters to double the oil production tax in order to fund city programs. Passing with a 57% majority, Long Beach voters approved Measure US, which doubles the tax on oil production from 15 cents to 30 cents a barrel. Based on an impartial analysis by the city attorney’s office, Measure US will raise $1.6 million, which will go towards the city’s general fund.
The tax will fund environmental and social programs that address the effects of climate change, youth and child development, job training opportunities, healthcare and improvements to air and water quality. To address health inequities, the measure will tailor programs to specifically benefit people of color impacted by the pandemic.
There has been no public argument in opposition to the oil production tax, which signals a major shift in public opinion on fossil fuels. Despite numerous federal environmental rollbacks attempting to derail the energy transition in the United States, cities like Long Beach are in a unique position to mobilize finance locally for climate action and an equitable economic recovery.
Inaction on climate change could cost the city $20 billion in 30 years. This measure will not only promote solar power, energy efficiency, battery storage and clean transportation, but funds will also go toward local job trainings for renewable and clean energy technologies – a reflection of recent efforts to promote equity in climate-related measures.
Goleta Union School District, California
At an even more local level, the Goleta Union school district in California garnered overwhelming support to make investments in school upgrades by issuing $80 million in bonds through Measure M2020. Renovations will include solar installations, electric vehicle charging and battery storage across the district’s 11 schools. The approval of this measure shows community consensus that renewable energy is a key part of school district upgrades.
Remaining Opportunities for Advancing the Energy Transition in the U.S.
These ballot measures demonstrate the important role and unique leverage that cities and states have in advancing an energy system that is cleaner, sustainable and more equitable. Progress can and should still be advanced at the subnational level: state and city actions complement one another, with states advancing innovative energy policies and cities playing a more active role across sectors, procuring renewable energy by pooling their demand and using their far-reaching authority to reform zoning and shape the transit system.
The most recent voting cycle has evidenced that voters have the opportunity, even at the most local level, to impact change and eliminate exclusionary zoning, overhaul transportation planning to promote transit, and streamline permitting for cleantech and building retrofits to meet their environmental and socioeconomic goals. These efforts, paired with the possibility of new federal support in the near future, can move the nation even closer to achieving the energy transition and making strides to address the climate challenge.