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Cities Take the Lead

 Mayors and other elected officials in 567 US cities recently signed a statement calling on the federal government to make global warming “a priority and to reduce the domestic sources of greenhouse gases, the pollution that causes global warming.” And several of the officials who signed the statement are conducting campaigns to lower their cities' greenhouse gas emissions.

In their statement, the mayors pointed out that “local communities bear the brunt” of the damage caused by the extreme weather events spawned by global warming. They also noted that currently available renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency practices can reduce global warming pollution “in a cost-effective manner that enhances economic development.”

Although a surprise to many, the mayors' statement on global warming did not emerge out of the blue. For several years, operating largely out of the public limelight, a growing number of local officials and non-governmental organizations have taken concrete steps to develop local solutions to global pollution. Leading this effort – and an instigator of the mayors' statement – is the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), an organization “dedicated to the prevention and solution of local, regional and global environmental problems through local action.”

ICLEI's “Cities for Climate Protection Campaign” helps communities around the globe assess their greenhouse gas emissions and take an array of energy-saving steps to reduce those emissions. Currently, 66 cities across the US participate in that program, and hundreds more have jumped on the smart energy bandwagon.

When the local utility, TXU Corp., built a wind farm and proposed a pilot green energy project in Waco, Texas, mayor Mike Morrison jumped at the opportunity. “This was a chance to scratch an itch that a lot of people around here have,” he says. “Many of us are very interested in getting into renewables as opposed to fossil fuels.”

Morrison has challenged the citizens of this city of 100,000 to be the first in the country to have 25 percent of their electricity generated by green power. Several months into the campaign, he and TXU officials are optimistic. Thirty-five to 50 residential and business customers per week are switching to green power, and the utility plants a tree in Waco for each of its new green energy purchasers.

A number of other cities are buying renewable energy – power provided by the sun, wind, biomass and geothermal sources. Last spring, Santa Monica, California, became the first major city in the world to have all of its municipal power needs supplied by green energy. The city arranged with Commonwealth Energy to purchase 5 megawatts of geothermal power, equivalent to the electricity used by 5,000 homes, to meet its municipal needs for one year. It will pay a five percent premium, about $140,000, for the green energy.

Renewable energy is increasingly being generated in and by cities as well. Sacramento, California, operates a large photovoltaic facility, which converts sunlight directly to electricity. It is located on the grounds of the former Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, which was closed by public referendum in 1989. The Sacramento Municipal District (SMUD) also installs photovoltaic panels on the roofs of residences and businesses. The panels provide green electricity on site and feed excess power into the electric grid. Although the panels are installed free of charge, customers pay a premium of $4 per month on their utility bills. Over 450 systems have been installed on residential rooftops, feeding over 1.5 megawatts into SMUD's grid.

Since cars and trucks consume huge amounts of energy and, in the US, produce one-third of smog-causing pollutants and one-fourth of global warming gases, cities large and small are shifting to energy efficient, reduced-emission vehicles. Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky operate extensive fleets of compressed natural gas vehicles. Redondo Beach, California, is converting three police cars and a number of vehicles to compressed natural gas. Peoria, Illinois operates the world's largest bus fleet fueled by ethanol. And Chattanooga, Tennessee's fleet of electric buses provide free rides in its downtown area.

This exciting sustainable energy movement is underway because local leaders are starting to understand that smart energy use is a win-win strategy. It can save substantial money and improve the quality of citizens' lives as well as enhance the natural environment – locally and globally. As this local movement intensifies, eventually our nation's leaders may feel compelled to join the parade to a sustainable energy future.


Michael Closson coordinates the Earth Day Network's Cities and Energy Campaign. For information about getting your community involved in Earth Day 2000, contact him at 206/876-2000, mclosson@earthday.net.

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