Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, recently became a co-chair for the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100 Percent Clean Energy Campaign.
Benjamin’s addition to the growing list of mayors who say they will transition their communities to 100 percent renewable energy is largely symbolic: To date, the city government has not released a target date or plan by which Columbia will ditch fossil fuels in favor of clean technologies. And the Democratic mayor’s city is also the capital of a deeply red state.
South Carolina’s legislature has passed some climate-friendly bills in recent years, but it did not always move quickly on the adoption of a clean-energy agenda. Incentives for investing in renewables in South Carolina are scarcer than in other U.S. states.
Nevertheless, Benjamin and his city of 132,000 are making an important point. At a time when the federal government appears poised to abandon its role as a global leader on climate action, the reality is that cities can take the lead in mitigating climate risks by scaling clean-energy technologies. And in doing so, Columbia joins a group of cities as diverse as Atlanta, San Diego and Grand Rapids, Michigan, that say they are keen on doing their part to stall climate change while modernizing their economies.
In a recent interview with the the smart cities blog CityLab, Benjamin outlined some of the steps that Columbia has already taken to incorporate more renewables in its local grid.
South Carolina’s solar power initiative has already been greeted with enthusiasm by Columbia residents. To date, the city’s businesses and residents have installed enough solar power capacity to generate 8.2 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, which Benjamin claims is the equivalent of nixing 13 million car miles.
Other incremental changes include a commitment to running Columbia’s city council meetings on 100 percent renewables, converting almost all of the city’s traffic lights to LEDs, and fueling 60 percent of all city buses with natural gas instead of diesel. Benjamin also credits local NGOs, including Sustainable Midlands, with raising awareness about renewables and their environmental and economic benefits.
Some of Columbia’s push for climate resilience stems from recent experience. The city, as well as much of South Carolina, has experienced its share of climate-related disasters and natural catastrophes, dating even before Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The extreme October 2015 rainfall that hit Columbia, which Benjamin described as a “1,000-year flood event,” killed 19 people and caused billions of dollars in damages. That flood alone, by some accounts, was the sixth such 1,000-year flood to hit the U.S. since 2010.
In the end, mayors like Benjamin are in the driver’s seat to lead on the development of a low-carbon economy now that the federal government is unwilling and unable to carry that torch. “Cities are America’s only hope now in terms of climate action,” Johanna Partin of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) wrote in Time magazine shortly after the November election. “Climate policy cannot take a sabbatical and wait another four years or another election cycle for more aggressive action.”
To that end, CNCA has made the case of the funds cities could free up for infrastructure and public transportation systems if they did not have to spend so much of their budgets on fossil fuels.
Finally, as in much of the world, cities are generating the vast majority of U.S. GDP. McKinsey estimated that figure at 85 percent in 2010; Benjamin quoted 90 percent. Therefore, cities now, more than ever, can make the economic argument for investing in renewables, as today’s clean-energy sector is widely reported to be a larger employer than yesterday’s fossil fuels industry.
The days of cities chasing manufacturing jobs is over, as they are being displaced by offshoring or automation; but energy jobs cannot be outsourced, making this shift both an easy economic and environmental argument.
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