The idea that cities are leading on climate change is applauded over and over and over. There’s just one problem.

It's not actually happening.

Retrofit programs for buildings and homes aren't delivering results. Power distribution remains rooted in century-old thinking and technology. And those cities that claim to be on track to go "100 percent renewable"? Not even close.

With the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord, city contributions are needed more than ever. But it’s time to stop with the empty platitudes and face reality.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Cities haven’t yet taken on key roles 

The truth is that cities have done little to contribute to recent declines in carbon pollution. Renewable portfolio standards have spurred tons of new renewable generation, but states adopt those, not cities. Transportation-related CO2 is down in many cities, but that's largely the result of improved national fuel-efficiency standards. And urban areas did nothing to create cheap natural gas, which, by displacing coal, has been the leading driver of reduced emissions.

A central issue is that cities seldom have jurisdictional authority over energy infrastructure. There are few municipally owned utilities -- and most regulators are chosen at the state level. Even with respect to the critical issue of building codes, mandates are frequently determined by counties, states, and the International Code Council.

It turns out that when cities claim reductions in greenhouse gases, they're usually taking credit for things they didn’t do.

Minimal progress with energy efficiency and solar

This doesn’t mean that cities can’t play a vital role. They can.

As San Francisco’s Renewable Energy Task Force stated in a 2012 report, "Reaching [100% renewables] will require coordinated action in three main areas: improving energy efficiency to reduce total electricity demand, increasing in-city renewable distributed generation (DG) to reduce the need for imported green power, and providing all customers a 100% renewable power purchasing option.”

Most city climate plans reflect these principles -- focusing on reducing demand (i.e., efficiency) and increasing renewable supply (i.e., distributed solar) within their borders.

With energy efficiency, however, it’s difficult to identify much progress. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently released its 2017 City Energy Efficiency Scorecard. Among the leaders in energy efficiency, you’d reasonably expect improvements with energy efficiency. You'd be wrong.

Electricity consumption, a primary source of carbon emissions, is flat or growing in each of ACEEE's top 20 cities with available information. In a host of frequently lauded cities, building electricity use is up over the last five years of data: Los Angles (+3 percent); New York City (+1 percent); San Francisco (+1 percent); Boston (+2 percent); Denver (+3 percent); Austin (+5 percent); and D.C. (+1 percent).

On a per-capita basis, residential electricity use is down in Austin (-9 percent) and San Francisco (-9 percent), but it’s up in Boston (+7 percent), Los Angeles (+9 percent), and D.C. (+17 percent).

This is bad news. The bottom line is that in urban areas, where new residents often live in highly efficient apartments and businesses operate in increasingly dense office buildings, electricity use must drop. That's not happening.

While potentially less impactful than efficiency, solar is another top priority. But according to the 2017 report, Shining Cities, only a few cities have more solar per capita than the national average. For example, while Los Angeles accounts for 10 percent of its state's population, just 2 percent of California’s solar is in L.A. 

Solar panels may dot farmlands and deserts, but the sun is not yet powering most urban areas. Just 0.3 percent of NYC’s power comes from solar, and the situation is similar in other cities, including San Francisco (1.2 percent); Boston (0.4 percent); Denver (1 percent); Austin (0.3 percent); D.C. (0.4 percent); Chicago (0.1 percent); and Baltimore (0.2 percent).

"100 percent renewable"

This lack of progress hasn’t stopped cities from making increasingly aggressive climate goals. Most notably, many cities now have "100 percent renewable" pledges. Unfortunately, at this juncture, it’s not entirely clear what these commitments really mean. 

[Note: The issue of carbon accounting can lead you down a rabbit hole from which you’ll never return. The main issue to understand, however, is that electricity generation creates two tradable commodities: “null electricity” (e.g., electrons) and environmental attributes (e.g., RECs). These commodities are routinely decoupled, wherein renewable generators sell electricity to one entity and RECs to another.]

I know about the bizarre implications of “100 percent renewable” and RECs firsthand. When I led the energy division for government facilities in Washington, D.C., we became entirely "green-powered" by purchasing one wind REC to account for each megawatt-hour of electricity we bought from the grid. “D.C. schools, firehouses, and offices are 100% powered by wind,” declared USA Today.  

This is where things get strange. Because the government was already "100 percent renewable” through RECs, our subsequent long-term power-purchase agreements (PPAs) -- to actually buy electricity from an offsite wind farm and new onsite solar panels -- had no impact on our greenhouse gas emissions. Technically, our emissions were not even reduced in buildings where efficiency measures cut consumption by 30 percent or more. 

To appreciate this insanity, it’s helpful to consider two scenarios.

Building A doubles its electricity consumption with an inefficient air conditioning system, but it buys RECs from an existing wind farm. Building B installs solar panels that provide all of its power, but it sells the RECs from those solar panels. According to the bizarre world of carbon accounting, Building A is preferable to Building B. That’s a problem -- because in actuality, it is not.

At scale, the muddled nature of this issue is showcased, ironically, in “100 percent renewable” Burlington, Vermont.

The city has created a website to provide clarity about its energy portfolio. It’s worth reading; pay particular attention to the journey from chart #1, to chart #2, to chart #3, and finally to chart #4. With respect to Burlington, clearly a well-intentioned jurisdiction, this path to "100 percent renewable” is a laughably confusing shell game.

Ultimately, put plainly, all of this means that cities can meet nebulous climate goals by purchasing credits. This is a worrisome path. Instead of obfuscating climate-related success, our focus should be on impactful action.  

Lack of transparency

Moving back to the real world, the electric meter for buildings should be a central barometer for climate progress. It’s not perfect.

Natural gas and transportation fuel are obvious contributors to greenhouse gases; weather and occupancy can create short-term fluctuations; and, as electric vehicles reach scale in the future, their energy consumption should be decoupled. But if we had to pick one metric, the building electric meter is a good one. 

Whether it's energy efficiency or onsite electricity generation, progress is tethered to metered building consumption. In order to make metered electricity use go down, you must reduce consumption and/or increase onsite generation -- full stop. 

Given the importance of electricity meters, then, how are cities doing so far this year? Well, we have no idea. 

Not a single city reports its electricity consumption more frequently than annually. Tons of cities do not appear to publicly report their electricity consumption at all, including Portland and Philadelphia. Others, like Chicago, have not reported data since 2010.

This is wildly unacceptable. When we want to track our steps, we put on a Fitbit and see activity in real time. Yet in the world of energy, where we spend billions of dollars on efficiency programs to reduce consumption, data is unavailable for years after the fact.

The Fitbit analogy is telling. Imagine a “step challenge” in your office to see who takes the most steps this summer. Except with this particular competition, you can’t see how you’re doing on a daily leaderboard. Also, the winner won’t be announced until next year. Would you even bother signing up?

Or imagine that your city has seen a rash of violent crime. There’s a new police chief, though, who says the city is on track to reduce robberies and murders by 75 percent. There’s just one twist: The police department has decided to stop releasing crime statistics to the public, at least until 2021.

That police chief would be fired. 

It does not have to be this way. In any jurisdiction with smart meters, it’s feasible to see electricity use in near-real time. Even with analog meters, monthly updates are possible. There is just no will or urgency to make it happen.

Rationalizations everywhere

This lack of will was plainly evident after I recently testified at a local hearing on D.C.’s energy budget. I noted that D.C.’s per-capita residential energy use is flat, at best, despite huge spending on conservation programs for homes. One local environmental leader said he thought I was being too tough on D.C. I needed to consider all of the new technology, he said: “Think about all the iPhones we’re charging these days. Flat is good.”

No, it’s not.

I also heard maddening rationalizations when we worked to improve efficiency with new school construction. Shortly after taking the job, it became apparent that our new schools were using more energy than the ones they replaced.

More stunning than the energy data, however, were the responses to my concerns. I was reminded that we needed electronic blackboards and computers, and that air conditioning systems made sure students weren’t suffering. Never mind that utility savings would go back into the classroom, or that student comfort and learning should be unaffected by well-designed efficiency. “This isn’t your issue,” I remember being told.

We can’t be in favor of conservation, except when we’re not. Almost all climate models show that buildings must become more efficient in order to avoid catastrophic temperature rise. In cities, the gains should be massive. We have no choice but to figure out how to make this happen, even with iPhones and air conditioning.

Offseason champs

When it comes to climate, it often seems as if cities have substituted press releases for action. This reminds me of D.C.'s football team. Every offseason, there’s lots of excitement. For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard, “This is the year!” But unfortunately, the games aren’t decided by how good you say you are, think you are, or plan to be. (Our football team has only won two playoff games in the last 25 years.)

Cities have fallen into this habit of being “offseason champs.” It’s an easy temptation. The risks of global warming are relatively long-term, and, relatedly, success is difficult to measure. In this environment, it’s easy to say you’re leading -- because there’s no scoreboard to say otherwise.

This is dangerous. On an issue of this importance, refusing to acknowledge failure is almost as bad as failure itself. Moreover, this head-in-the-sand approach limits our ability to recognize and improve what’s actually working. Iterations on success are central to the ability of all actors -- including cities -- to make progress on climate, but that’s not possible if we don’t know how we’re doing.

One small idea: Create a leaderboard

In this spirit of incremental change, I conclude with one small proposal.

There should be a website (paging Al Gore, Michael Bloomberg) that simply displays electricity consumption data for every city in America. On a regular basis, awards should be given to the top-performing cities. Some cities would do worse than others, but that’s the point. Public accountability could move the needle, at least a little, to spur cities to make real progress on a central metric of success. 

Enough with the mindless cheerleading. It’s time to put actual points on the board.


Sam Brooks was director of the energy division for the D.C. Department of General Services from 2012-2014. He now runs ClearRock, a  Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that serves as an owner’s representative for clean energy purchasing.