St. Petersburg, FL Mayor Rick Kriseman discusses the city’s commitment to transition to 100% renewable energy at a press conference on December 9, 2016. Photo courtesy of Suncoast Sierra Club.

From the snow-capped mountains of Utah to the coastal lowlands of Florida, communities are making bold commitments to help combat climate change. Despite uncertainty about how national climate policy will play out under the incoming presidential administration, grassroots action on climate change continues to gain momentum. Park City, Utah and St. Petersburg, Florida recently became the latest in a series of US cities — now twenty in total — that have committed to meeting all of their energy needs with renewable sources.

On November 21st, St. Petersburg, Florida became the nation’s 20th city to commit to meeting their energy needs with only renewable power, a commitment they highlighted in a press conference this past Friday, December 9th. Earlier this fall, on September 22nd, Park City, Utah approved a measure to transition the city to 100% renewable energy by 2032, making it the 19th city in the US to make such a pledge. They join a host of other US cities that have resolved to acquire all of their energy from sustainable sources, including Chicago, San Diego, Cleveland, Boise, and Boulder.

The role of cities in addressing climate change is especially important, because they account for 70% of global carbon emissions. Fortunately, as the impacts of climate change begin to be felt locally, cities and municipalities are increasingly demonstrating the political will to take bold actions to reduce CO2 emissions. As St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse told ThinkProgress, “I think cities are the perfect place because you can make very direct connections between investments that have pay back that people can see. There seem to be an endless number of things that cities can do that make economic sense, that are long-term money savers.”

Campaigns like Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 initiative, and the Climate Reality Project’s 100% Committed program are galvanizing commitments from cities across the U.S. to lead the way on climate change — but the growth of local action on climate change is a global phenomenon. While national governments hammered out the first international agreement on climate change at the Paris Climate Summit, cities and towns from around the world came together to showcase their local climate actions. As of March 2016, 198 cities and regions had committed to achieving to zero carbon emissions and/or 100% renewable energy by 2050.

St. Petersburg: From Fossil Fuel Tragedy to Clean Energy Opportunities

St. Petersburg is the first city in Florida to commit to transitioning to 100% renewable energy. With this action, it joins Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 national campaign to leverage the power of cities to catalyze the transition to renewable energy. Emily Gorman, Campaign Manager for the local arm of the initiative, Ready for 100% St. Pete, praised the city’s decision:

This is a historic moment for St. Pete. We envision a city where families can raise their kids in communities free from toxic pollution, where everyone has the opportunity for a good job and access to healthy, affordable energy. The transition to 100% clean, renewable energy will ensure a more resilient, sustainable and equitable future for all our residents.

This clean energy transition, which is just part of a broad suite of actions that St. Petersburg is taking to become a more sustainable and climate-resilient community, will be funded by a portion of a settlement the city is receiving from BP for economic damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. St. Petersburg received $6.5 million in spill settlement funds this year, and the City Council has reserved $1 million of that for climate and resiliency planning and early implementation projects. In a vote on November 21, the Council formally allocated $800,000 of that pool for three interconnected initiatives. $250,000 will provide for development of an Integrated Sustainability Action Plan; this plan will provide the roadmap for achieving 100% clean energy. The other initiatives funded include an energy audit and energy efficiency retrofits of City property, and a climate vulnerability assessment in partnership with Pinellas County.

Beyond making the city healthier and more resilient, the allocation of oil spill settlement monies for renewable energy and climate adaptation activities has symbolic significance- turning a tragedy of the fossil fuel economy into a catalyst for the realization of the clean energy economy. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was the worst in the history of marine oil drilling, releasing 4 million barrels of oil, or 19 times the amount of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. BP was ordered to pay $20.8 billion to cities and counties in five Gulf states based on estimations of the economic impact of the spill.

Park City Joins other Mountain Towns in Climate Leadership

Earlier this fall, Park City, Utah became the 19th city in the country — and the second in Utah — to pledge to transition to 100% renewable energy. On September 22nd, the City Council unanimously approved a measure to power local energy needs entirely with renewable power, like wind and solar, by 2032. Mayor Jack Thomas reinforced that goal on October 12th by joining the Climate Reality Project’s 100% Committed campaign. Like the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, 100% Committed seeks to obtain local dedication to 100% renewable energy usage, but focuses on ski resorts, businesses, and mountain communities around the world.

In making this commitment, Park City joins a growing movement of mountain towns taking bold action on climate change. One ally in these efforts is Salt Lake City, which became the first municipality in the state to announce intentions to completely transition away from fossil fuels in July. The two cities are combining forces to achieve this goal; they are currently partnering on a feasibility study to look at clean energy sources, and develop strategies to reach their target by 2032. Ken Berlin, President and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, offered context on the role of mountain economies in the fight against climate change:

The snow-dependent industry is on the front lines of climate change with significant economic and environmental implications. Commitments from these communities to combat climate change [are] a way to ramp up ambitions for channeling the passion of the winter sports and mountain communities into global climate action.

Communities on the Battleground of Climate Change

Both St. Petersburg and Park City face potentially serious impacts from climate change. For Park City, which hosted alpine skiing and snowboarding events in the 2002 Winter Olympics, winter sports and tourism are major economic contributors. As a result, shorter and warmer winters resulting from climate change are major threats to the area. It is estimated that by the end of the century, only six of the 19 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics are likely to be cold enough to host again. Lindsay Beebe, Utah Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, underscored the economic significance climate threats, noting that, “Park City is a flagship destination of Utah’s growing recreation and tourism industry, which contributes more than 5.8 billion dollars to the state’s economy and employs more than 65,000 people.”

St. Petersburg, located along Florida’s Gulf coast, faces a different set of climate threats, including sea level rise and more frequent and severe storms. A 2015 report by the Risky Business Project found that Florida faces more risk of flooding for private, insurable property than any other U.S. state. The study projects that “By 2030, up to $69 billion in coastal property will likely be at risk of inundation at high tide that is not at risk today. By 2050, the value of property below local high tide levels will increase to up to about $152 billion.” The same report also predicted that costs from property damage would rise as hurricanes become more intense, finding that “storm-related property losses attributed to climate change along the Florida shoreline are likely to increase by as much as $1.3 billion per year on average by 2030.” In addition to economic impacts, climate change is expected to have significant human health impacts as the number of dangerously hot days increases; in Florida, this may result in as many as 1,840 additional heat-related deaths per year.

St. Petersburg City Council member and chair of the city’s Energy, Natural Resources & Sustainability Committee, Darden Rice, summed up the significance of climate action for cities. “There is no cavalry left. We are the cavalry. It’s left up to cities to be the innovators, to be the agents of change, and to do it in a practical way.”

Local Actions Lead the Way in Lagging States

St. Petersburg and Park City are both pushing the boundaries in state landscapes that haven’t traditionally been strongholds for renewable energy. Perhaps one of the greatest potential impacts of these renewable energy commitments, beyond direct reduction of carbon emissions, will be to spur broader energy changes at the state level. While Florida and Utah are among the sunniest states in the nation, both have a long way to go in terms of the expansion of solar. Florida is ranked third in the nation for its solar energy potential, yet just one tenth of one percent of all Florida utility customers owned a renewable generating system last year. In November, however, Florida voters united in an outpouring of support for solar energy, overturning a deceptive, utility-backed amendment that would have opened the door for increased fees for residential solar. This swell of grassroots action, along with bold commitments like St. Petersburg’s, may signal a brighter outlook for solar in the Sunshine State.

Utah currently relies on coal power for 75% of its electricity, so it’s hoped that the efforts of Park City and Salt Lake City will help stimulate the state’s transition to more sustainable sources of energy. Already this year Salt Lake City has signed a Clean Energy Cooperation Statement with the local electric utility (Rocky Mountain Power) outlining how they will work together to achieve their 100% clean energy goal. In discussing the significance of these local efforts, Park City Mayor Jack Thomas observed that a goal of “…this endeavor is to really make a statement and become part of that accumulative [effect] of small towns across the country, or even larger towns like Salt Lake City, to build a critical mass because I believe the solution and the work that needs to be done has to be from the ground up.”

Climate mitigation is just one of the many reasons cities and towns are turning to renewable energy; it also makes good economic sense. In regards to his own state, Salt Lake City Sustainability Program Manager Tyler Poulson noted that “Utah is one of the ten sunniest states in the union and in the last few years we’ve really crossed a threshold where the economics of solar have become really feasible…” As we reported recently, residential solar is cheaper than grid electricity in 20 U.S. states, and in 42 of the 50 largest U.S. cities, customers going solar save money compared to buying from their utility. Clean power is also a major job creator, with the solar industry growing at 12 times the rate of the rest of the economy. Add to that the strong support for renewables across the political spectrum — 89% of Americans feel favorably about the expansion of solar energy — and it’s clear to see that the clean energy revolution, epitomized by local actions like those in Park City and St. Petersburg, is just getting started.