Presidents column: Over 350 gather to learn about renewable city developments

Friday, 26. May 2017

It was late evening when we pulled into the Pacific Central railway station in Vancouver, British Columbia. Paulette and I were attending the Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum 2017, organized by Simon Fraser University and held at the Four Seasons Hotel on 17-19 May. We had decided to take the Amtrak Cascades train from Seattle. The rail line winds its way up along the Puget Sound coastline offering spectacular views of the many islands, the maritime life, and the Olympic mountains in the distance. Our late evening trip was highlighted by a colorful sunset reflecting off the water.

The more than 350 participants at the Forum included mayors and city leaders, not only from Canada and the U.S. but from around the world. Also attending were researchers, renewable energy developers, and government, institutional and NGO stakeholders. In total, 105 different municipalities across 12 different countries and 22 provinces and states were represented. The unique format of the Forum, which was organized by Simon Fraser University’s Center for Dialogue, allowed for a highly-interactive process. The plenary sessions consisted of moderated panel discussions where we learned of the growing worldwide movement to establish high-level renewable energy targets and sustainable practices for cities and communities. The Mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, was among the first of these speakers, articulating his vision of Vancouver becoming one of the world’s greenest cities (for a city of its size it has likely already achieved this goal). He noted how a focus on sustainable, net-zero energy buildings, electrified public transportation and electric vehicles, bike routes, and ample green spaces is the key to achieve this goal. He was followed by Eduardo Paes, the former Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, who argued that the key challenge in creating a renewable city is communication, especially on the economic opportunities. We learned about the efforts of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, or C40, which has brought together over 7500 mayors to address greenhouse gas emission mitigation strategies in their communities. The opening plenary also featured a dialogue with Director-General Adnan Amin of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) who provided a global view of the energy transformation that is taking place, and the economic drivers that are motivating this transformation.

Following each plenary session, time was set aside for individual break-out workshops or “dialogues”, generally about one hour in length, with six to eight dialogues occurring in parallel. Each conference attendee had the opportunity to select the individual dialogue in which they would participate. These dialogues were highly interactive, with opportunities for all the participants to contribute their ideas and experiences on a variety of topics related to the global energy transformation, especially as the transformation relates to meeting the energy requirements of urban regions through responsible economic and equity practices and in parallel addressing climate change mitigation.

Besides Paulette and myself representing ISES, Board member Anna Leidreiter served as one of the dialogue leaders. She led two dialogue discussions. One, led jointly by her and Jodie Van Horn[1], Director of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign, was under the theme “Intent to Action”, and involved an Advocacy Campaign Clinic going over the building blocks that can be used by community leaders to establish a 100% renewable energy target. Anna’s second workshop featured specific case studies on how implementing the building blocks have led to the transformation to 100% renewable energy in Oxford County, Canada and Nord Hesse, Germany. Incidentally, the week prior to the Forum Anna celebrated the launch of the GO100% Renewable Energy Platform on 8 May at their new offices in Bonn. ISES is a founding member of the Platform.

At the Forum, we learned that achieving a grand vision of a city powered 100% by renewable energy is feasible if strong leadership, effective communications, political will and investment capital are at hand. An especially important success factor is compelling communications of the economic advantages and equity considerations that this vision achieves. Climate change is not always necessary, and in fact may not always be politically advantageous, to use as a motivation to achieve 100% renewables. Many cities have made a 100% renewable energy commitment based largely on the quality of life and the realities of the new energy economy as the primary driving force. We already see this transformation occurring with the significant investments and technology advancements being made in the power, heat, and transport energy sectors globally. All we need to do is look at the recent targets established by major countries around the world: for example, India’s 100 GW Solar Mission, China’s drive to have 27% grid-connected renewable energy in the coming years, and Saudi Arabia’s $50B investment to add 9.5 GW renewable energy capacity in the next few years are just a few of the examples brought forth in the Forum.

Exactly how a city achieves 100% renewables will obviously vary from case to case. Approaches may focus on the building sector (net zero energy for all new buildings with aggressive building retrofit programs), the transport sector (electric vehicles incentivized by ample solar-powered charging stations, improved bike lanes), and/or the power and heat sectors (roof-top solar, solar-powered district heating, electricity supplied only by renewable sources generated outside of the city limits). Clearly, given the variable nature of renewable energy, energy storage will become an increasingly important factor to consider, especially as renewable penetrations reach 70-80%.

In our view the Forum was very successful, providing an effective format to bring together the technology specialists with the decision makers and the advocacy groups to inform how the energy transformation is taking place and how this transformation can lead to 100% renewable cities. Following an informative 10-km bicycle tour of Vancouver after the Forum, Paulette and I returned to Seattle, by train, with ideas to pursue, both within own communities and in the programs which ISES supports, for achieving a 100% renewable energy vision.


[1] Through Jodie’s efforts with the Sierra Club, 28 cities across the U.S. have now committed to 100% renewable energy.