Yes, In My Front Yard

Local governments have significant power to influence the energy choices of their citizens. They administer and regulate water supply, waste collection, public transport, and infrastructure. They own buildings, land, waste treatment facilities and vehicle fleets and they have close proximity to citizens and businesses.

Many cities and towns have already encouraged energy efficiency measures, but relatively few have enhanced the deployment of renewable energy projects within their boundary. As demand for energy services continues to grow, the energy infrastructure that every city and town depends upon will need to be expanded and upgraded. This provides the opportunity to increase the deployment of renewable energy technologies and distributed energy systems, and hence gain multiple benefits.

A range of policies have already been employed by a few cities to stimulate local renewable energy development and achieve these multiple benefits for local citizens including energy security, reduced air pollution, sustainable development, improved health, employment, as well as helping to meet national or state ambitions for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Policies include local governance by authority, by provision, by enabling, by leadership, by self-governance, and by combinations of such approaches. Mayors of mega-cities, down to small-town officials, have successfully introduced such policies, although these vary with location, local resources, and population.

Current Status of Urban Centres

More than 50% of the world’s population now live in urban environments and this proportion will continue to grow over the next few decades. They produce around 71% of global, energy-related, CO2 emissions which is likely to rise to 76% by 2030. In OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operations and Development) countries, many cities have already taken initiatives to reduce their energy demand through improved efficiency and conservation, in an endeavour to reduce their dependence on imported energy and reduce their carbon footprints. In many cases, an increased uptake of renewable energy technologies could also be an economically viable solution to energy security and climate change mitigation, especially when all the other co-benefits are taken into account.

Above: Barcelona’s renewables model has been replicated across Spain

For some cities, particularly those in non-OECD countries, additional drivers have been to reduce local air pollution and move towards sustainable development and growth. Overall however, only a small proportion of local governments worldwide have developed policies and projects specifically to better utilise their local renewable energy resources and capture the benefits.

Several leading and progressive cities and towns have already taken innovative decisions to enhance the deployment and use of renewable energy resources within their geographic boundaries. For example the borough of Merton in London, England, introduced a regulation that all new buildings would have to meet at least 10% of their total energy demand from renewable energy technologies that are integrated into the building structure. The so-called ‘Merton rule’ has encouraged architects, designers and developers of buildings to also consider energy efficiency as a high priority, in order to keep the share of renewable energy down to a manageable level – 10% of a little energy is cheaper than 10% of a lot. This regulation has now been copied by many other local authorities throughout the UK.

Similarly, in 2000 Barcelona introduced ordinance for solar water heaters to be installed on all new and retrofitted buildings and, with various modifications, this has now been replicated throughout Spain as a national directive. Even more ambitiously, the small Austrian town of Güssing has largely succeeded in becoming fossil fuel free by implementing a range of renewable energy projects. It receives numerous visitors from other local governments wishing to follow its example.

City mayors, councillors, local captains of industry, small and medium enterprises, and indeed all members of an urban community should consider the opportunities that might encourage the efficient utilisation of their local sources of renewable energy. Overall aims of a local government in developing supporting policies might be to:

  • inspire all members of their urban community to gain a greater understanding of the potential for renewable energy and to comprehend how its enhanced deployment could benefit themselves as citizens as well as local businesses;
  • provide guidance and understanding to national, state and regional policy-makers as to how incentivising their local communities could help meet national and international energy use objectives; and,
  • enable national policy-makers to better appreciate the roles that local municipalities might play in increasing renewable energy deployment, and hence moving further towards the desired transition from fossil fuels to a sustainable energy future.


Leaders and officials of local governments have started to become more involved in climate change policy-making by strategic planning; formulating, approving and implementing policies; evaluating their effectiveness; and disseminating successful actions for replication elsewhere. Successful policies instigated by large and small city councils and local municipalities from around the world have resulted in the significant uptake of renewable energy projects. These could easily be adopted by other local governments. Regardless of the size of a community, the policy principles involved are similar. Some national governments have encouraged this trend, for example, by returning the revenue from the sale of carbon credits to the local municipality that invested in an accredited renewable energy project. Palmerston North, in New Zealand, is an example where the local landfill gas site generates around 35,000 carbon credits each year, 149,000 having been sold for some €600,000 (US$ 813,000) to the Austrian government prior to the Kyoto Protocol being signed, and others sold more recently to Toyota NZ.

The Role of Technology Development

A wide range of renewable energy technologies are in the market place and can be readily employed to meet the energy services needed by city residents and businesses to provide heating, cooling, electricity and mobility. Production of heat, cold or electricity can occur within or close to the city boundary, usually by building medium-scale projects, either developed solely by the local authority or in partnership with private industry. Any locally available, primary renewable energy resources coming from biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar and wind can be exploited for this purpose. If generated at the large-scale outside the city boundary, the ‘green energy carriers’ such as biofuels or concentrating solar power, can be purchased and brought into the city for distribution to users.

Cities tend to target a specific renewable energy resource that best suits their conditions. For example, solar PV systems suit cities in lower-latitude, high sunshine, regions; geothermal power suits cities located near the tectonic plates; and bioenergy for heating or CHP (combined heat and power plants) is most common in areas with a forest industry located nearby. Cities with such a prime resource often try and develop, or attract, business ventures and investments relating directly to it. District heating schemes based on geothermal or bioenergy sources have proven to be efficient and cost effective in many cities. District cooling schemes are also maturing and good practical examples exist in several locations, including those using new solar sorption technologies.

Many cities already utilise their local renewable energy resources cost-effectively. Some smaller towns have even become fossil fuel free – although it is usually easier for a small community, located in rural surroundings, to achieve a high renewable energy contribution than it is for a mega-city trying to meet a similar objective. Cities located near the coast, or on islands, may be able to benefit from offshore wind and also, in future, from ocean energy technologies currently under development.

At the small-scale, the trend towards distributed energy (DE) has already begun in some cities and has also encouraged the development of building-integrated energy systems. The potential for a transition to ‘digital energy’ systems has now been realised. As shown in figure 1, below, this may be based on the deployment of smart meters, intelligent grids, integration of demand side management and energy storage technologies (including electric vehicles) – as well as new technologies, such as sorption chillers, biomass Stirling engines, and roof-ridge-mounted wind turbines at the demonstration stage, often supported by investments from local governments. This transition of the traditional energy system is technically very complex, but is developing rapidly. A sustainable energy future could depend on a wise combination of both centralised and DE systems that utilise technological advances throughout the supply chain.

Regulations and policies to support DE are already under development in several leading cities. RD&D investments are being made, not only by traditional utilities such as National Grid, Dong Energy and Duke Energy, and power generation equipment manufacturers such as Alstom, but also by large telecommunication and information technology companies including Intel, Google and Vodafone, and automobile manufacturers including Mitsubishi. Current concerns over data ownership and privacy issues remain to be resolved, however.

Above: Figure 1. Representation of a distributed generation system with two-way flows of electrons and of revenue through smart meters and intelligent grids

Local Governance Options and Approaches

Since a municipality owns and operates a range of buildings and facilities it can do what it wishes in terms of their management and energy supply (with energy efficiency usually high on the list). It also collects, treats and disposes of solid and liquid wastes (keeping within national regulations). As a land owner, it can develop projects within its boundary. Based on these responsibilities, many examples exist of city councils taking on a self-governance role by introducing, designing and developing renewable energy projects and systems for their own activities. The city thereby becomes a role model for local businesses and citizens to follow where appropriate, as well as for other similar size municipalities to emulate.

To stimulate actions outside of its ownership control, a local government often has the power to employ governance by authority (depending on its legal status as devolved by the regional, national or state government). It can thereby determine and introduce regulations set to meet certain objectives. Governance by leadership is where such objectives can be set in the form of a target and deadline date agreed by the community. The target might be fairly broad, such as reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions or increasing the share of renewable energy, or be more specific, such as aiming for a defined number of solar water heaters being installed or achieving a given percentage share of buildings to be connected to a biomass district heating scheme. Once a target has been agreed, in order to ensure the deadline is met, or possibly exceeded, regulations may need to be developed. These could mandate, for example, that all local buses and taxis will be run on a specified blend of biofuels, or that all new building construction will have to include the installation of a ground source heat pump.

Above: Municipalities have mandated that their vehicle fleets use biofuels

Larger local governments are often in a position to provide governance by provision in which various forms of financial incentives are offered to encourage renewable energy project deployment. There is usually a cost involved in such policies so ideally their cost-effectiveness needs to be measured in some way and monitored. Municipalities may also facilitate businesses and citizens to go beyond the minimum legally required of them at the national level by taking voluntary actions and establishing voluntary agreements.

Finally, most local municipalities are usually in a good position to undertake governance through enabling by providing education, training, advice, research and information services for its local businesses and citizens. In many cases it has been shown that both regulations and financial incentives can be more successful when undertaken in parallel with an information and educational campaign (IEA, 2007).

These various types of governance arrangements can exercise their functions by using a range of specific policy instruments (Martinot et al., 2009). In reality the boundaries between each category tend to be obscure. Policies are rarely implemented in isolation and it is more usual to develop and introduce a suite of complementary policies simultaneously (see box panel on page 79 ).

In Conclusion

Local authorities can serve as a vehicle to implement top-down policies from national governments and to ensure national mandates are carried out and deliver meaningful results. The local approach can help to demonstrate what is possible, at what costs and who the winners and losers might be. Social experimentation relating to renewable energy deployment can be undertaken at the local level and, where successful, adopted nationally. National governments therefore need to enable action at the local government level in order to fully integrate renewable energy and climate considerations into urban development strategies.

While there are many examples of cities that are starting to act on climate change and security issues by developing support policies to stimulate renewable energy activities, there are many more that have not yet appreciated the serious need for urgent action. If each of the many successful renewable energy projects and innovative policies undertaken by leading cities could be replicated a hundred fold during the coming decade, then the role of cities and towns as facilitators of change in the energy sector would be significant.

Ralph E. H. Sims is Professon of Sustainably Energy, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

This article is based upon the IEA report of the same title, written by the author and published in late 2009. The goals of the report are to show how renewable energy systems can benefit citizens and businesses, assist national governments to better appreciate the role that local municipalities might play in meeting national and international objectives, and help accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy future. The report includes case studies chosen to illustrate how enhanced deployment of renewable energy projects can result, regardless of a community’s size, wealth, state of development, or location. The term ‘city’ refers to urban conglomerations administered by local municipalities and ranging from mega-cities with populations of several millions to small towns – urban settlements of several hundred people.

Sidebar: Policy Recommendations for Local Governments

  • An assessment of available energy resources, together with analyses of future energy demands and costs of alternative supplies to meet heating, cooling, electricity and transport demands, should be undertaken prior to promoting the use of renewable energy. The assessment should include the potential for renewable energy projects based around water supply, wastes, and land managed by the local authority. Seasonal and daily variations in energy demand need to be considered.
  • Development of renewable energy deployment policies should be undertaken in association with energy efficiency measures. In most countries, leading cities have attempted to reduce their energy demand through improved efficiency and energy management incentives, and this has been recognised as a key policy priority. Putting parallel policies in place to support the use of renewable energy by the local community usually makes good sense.
  • The evolution of decentralised energy systems will vary with the location, existing energy infrastructure, renewable energy resources available, and energy business ownership status. Local governments could take a lead role by developing policies that will help support the transition of the conventional energy sector to a less centralised system.
  • A wide range of policies is already evident for councils to select from that will lead to greater renewable energy deployment. None of these would suit all cities, so careful evaluation is required to determine those policies which are most appropriate to match the local conditions.
  • Regardless of size, a city should undertake renewable energy policy developments in association with other policies, including national policies linked to sustainability goals and climate change, and local policies relating to energy security, energy access, health, employment, equity and reducing energy demands. Policies that are not directly energy-related can influence renewable energy uptake.
  • Support from citizens and local businesses for the greater deployment of renewable energy technologies based on a good understanding of the issues is essential. The personal benefits that would result for individuals and businesses need to be identified and disseminated. Leaders of municipalities can motivate their residents, offer them enhanced pride in their community as a result of being an early adoptor, as well as provide them with greater energy independence, energy security, employment and social cohesion. Strong leadership based on clear objectives is essential.
  • Many local governments tend to follow early innovators rather than lead. The advantages for cities that lead in the design, investment and monitoring of renewable energy demonstration projects that can be easily replicated, include pride and the creation of a strong national and international interest. Training centres and industrial parks based around a demonstration project can help to educate citizens, attract outside interest, and provide a critical mass of skilled personnel.
  • Cities with relatively few policies in place to support and encourage the use of their renewable energy resources should evaluate the policies of leading municipalities and determine whether similar benefits could accrue. Any constraints set by their own specific set of circumstances would need to be identified.
Previous articleWind Farms: Are All the Best Spots Taken?
Next articleSouthwestern US Prepares for Geothermal Energy
Renewable Energy World's content team members help deliver the most comprehensive news coverage of the renewable energy industries. Based in the U.S., the UK, and South Africa, the team is comprised of editors from Clarion Energy's myriad of publications that cover the global energy industry.

No posts to display