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Going All In with Renewable Energy

After a monster tornado wiped out Greensburg, Kansas in 2007, killing 11 people, the community decided to rebuild with meaning. It set out to become one of the world's greenest communities.

Today the town is among a growing number of jurisdictions that generates all of its electricity from renewable energy.

An aeriel view of Greensburg before (left) and after the tornado (right). Credit: City of Greensburg.

Greensburg achieved a goal that many see as pie-in-the-sky. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore several years ago drew jeers from his political critics when he proposed that the U.S. go all green within a decade. The jury remains out about the plausibility of a U.S.-size economy functioning with all renewables anytime soon. But Greensburg, with a population of less than 1,000 people, has demonstrated that it can work on a small scale. Others have done the same, among them Güssing, Austria; King Island, Australia; and Naturstrom, Germany.

It's not just cities with the ambition. Eight nations are 100 percent renewable or moving in that direction: Denmark, Iceland, Scotland, Costa Rica, Maldive Islands, Cook Islands, Tuvalu, and Tokelau. Add 42 cities, 49 regions, 8 utilities and 21 organizations, and going 'all green' looks like a bona fide trend.

Times have changed since the mid-2000s when a group that included the late Hermann Scheer, TIME magazine's 'Hero for the Green Century', first explored the idea. The group formed the Renewables 100 Policy Institute, but in the early years found that the concept was too "bleeding edge" for established non-profits, which declined to sign on.

"Now that is starting to change," said Diane Moss, the institute's founding director. The Renewables 100 Policy Institute held its first international conference in April, drawing a crowd of more than 200 people. The presenters were not from the fringe of the green world, but were representatives of established advocacy organizations, elected officials, corporate executives and the head of the California Independent System Operator Corp.

"If we want to fill our goal on a global scale it is important that regions like California, like Germany or other regions unify together in a movement to 100 renewable," said Harry Lehmann, Director of the German Federal Environment Agency at the conference. "We have to share our experience."

Today, the Renewables 100 Policy Institute is actively supporting the trend and reports on global progress via the Go 100 percent Renewable Energy project it created. An interactive map on the site tracks those pursuing and achieving the all-renewables goal. (The site is the source of the numbers above on how many jurisdictions the movement encompasses.)

Early Achievers

No doubt, it is easier for certain regions over others to generate all of their electricity from green energy. Early achievers often have the advantage of significant natural renewable resources.

Iceland, which produces all stationery energy from renewables, relies on its vast hydropower and geothermal resources. Costa Rica already has achieved 95 percent to 98 percent renewables, mostly from indigenous hydro. Similarly, New Zealand, which is moving toward a 90 percent goal, gets 75 percent of its power from renewables, mostly hydro and geothermal, and is now working on developing its wind power.

Scotland also relies on its strong winds and hydro, which produce the bulk of its 5.8 GW of renewable energy installed capacity. The country hopes to reach the 100 percent target by 2020. A Scottish parliament report found that to stay on track Scotland had to be generating about 31 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2011. It beat the target with 35 percent in 2011 and about 39 percent in 2012, according to Scottish Renewables, an industry organization.

While Scotland is ahead of its goal, it's not necessarily clear sailing from here.

"There are three major challenges that we face in realizing our ambitious targets; access to finance, strengthening our grid infrastructure and ensuring we have a good planning system in place," said Rachelle Money, director of communications for Scottish Renewables.

Then there are those places with unusual circumstances that make renewables almost the only real choice. Rural villagers in Bangladesh have achieved all renewable electricity. But they have no connection to a power grid, leaving distributed solar energy as a logical choice and their sole source of power.

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State of Mind

Bountiful hydro, wind and geothermal helps, but so does the right attitude. Consider Germany, which Moss says belies the oft-repeated phrase that renewables are great, but will always be a small part of the mix.

Germany has 30 GW of solar, yet no more sun than Juneau, Alaska. It is installing solar "at this point for half the installation cost of California — which last time I checked was very sunny," Moss said. "Germany doesn't have a lot of wind [or] sun or hydropower, and yet they are on track to be at least 80 percent renewable in the power sector by the middle of the century. And there are plenty of people who think they will get to 100 percent."

Places like Germany succeed in part because of good government policy. But they also "think a little bit more long term," according to Moss. They recognize the local "added value" brought by renewables — not sending money elsewhere for fuel, creating jobs, boosting the tax base, even attracting tourists, she said.

Greensburg, Kansas at first glance seemed an unlikely candidate to go 100 percent renewable. Many of its citizens, those not in farming, earn their living in the oil and gas industry. But the town's mayor, Bob Dixson, says look deeper and the town's green roots show.

Top: A look at the newly rebuilt Greensburg, the first U.S. city with all-LED street lights and the first with a LEED-certified town hall. Bottom left: Greensburg after the devastating tornado struck. Bottom right: The 12.5-MW Greensburg wind farm developed and operated by NativeEnergy. Credit: City of Greensburg.

"Let's go clear back to my ancestors," he said. "Before rural electrification came to western Kansas, the first electricity on farms were what we called wind chargers. You can still drive around western Kansas and see remnants of towers from 60, 70, 80 years ago."

The townspeople believe "if you take care of the land, it takes care of you. So that environmental stewardship has been one of our base values through the decades and centuries," he said.

The core value showed itself quickly after the tornado. Amidst the rubble, community members and officials met in a tent to brainstorm. Within the first 24 hours the idea emerged that a place called Greensburg should be 100 percent green.

It became a community-wide effort — Greensburg compares its reconstruction to an old-fashion barn-raising. Out of it came a model town: highly efficient, using geothermal and solar, the first U.S. city with all LED street lights and the first with a LEED-certified town hall.

But credit for its all-green status goes mostly to a 12.5-MW wind farm developed by NativeEnergy. Because of the wind farm, Greensburg has seen no increase in electric rates in six years, Dixson said.

But most of all, Greensburg found a way to move forward by pursuing 100 percent renewables. "Eleven lives were lost in tornado. All of us lost everything, no matter what your social economic status was. The only thing we had left was each other," Dixson said. "We did not just want to be a surviving community. We wanted to be a thriving community. As our ancestors built a community for us we needed to build a community for future generations."

As goes Greensburg, so goes the rest of the world? That may be a big leap. But what's clear is that 100 percent green is no longer an outlier's pursuit, but a serious goal in many places, one that could become a new rallying cry for renewables in the years to come.

Lead image: Scotland's Fallago Rig Wind Farm via EDF Energy Aerial

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