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Culture / Newsy

Houston Ranks No. 1 in America in Renewable Energy Use — No, Really

The City Government's Remarkable Feat Defies the Odds With Ambitious Climate Action Plan

BY Staff Report // 07.02.19

It’s no secret that oil and gas have long been Houston’s lifeblood. The energy industry runs through Space City’s veins, cushioning us while other cities struggle, propelling us ever forward.

But there’s something to keep in mind — energy encapsulates far more than oil and gas, from solar to wind. And the City of Houston is all about sustainability.

In fact, Houston is a straight-up leader in renewable energy across the United States.

That’s right. The City of Houston sources a whopping 92 percent of its power from wind and solar energy. According to a February EPA report, that impressive percentage ranks it higher in renewable energy use than any other city government in the United States.

Houston might carry an overall bad reputation in sustainability circles nationally, often getting painted as a polluted wasteland (often by those who’ve never visited). But the City of Houston is here to create a new one.

The City of Houston, dedicated to its ambitious Climate Action Plan, with aims for a 2020 implementation, is putting its money where its mouth is.

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“Oftentimes, we think of Houston as the Oil and Gas Capital of the World. But really, we strive to be the Energy Capital of the World,” Houston’s chief sustainability officer Lara Cottingham tells PaperCity.

“As a city, we have a really long and strong history of sustainability. From a sustainability perspective, we’ve been the largest municipal user of renewable energy for some time now.”

Most of the City of Houston’s power — about 88 percent of it — comes from wind turbine operators, while the rest is sourced from an Alpine, Texas solar farm that spans 350 acres.

“Houston’s not traditionally viewed as a hotbed for climate action. But the fact that we’re doing this in our big cities just shows how far the idea of climate has changed, that’s it’s not just a political hot button issue but something we’ve realized that we have to work on,” Cottingham notes.

Mayor Turner has stepped up to the plate with renewed interest in renewables, trying to keep pace with the Paris Agreement. But Mayors Parker, White and Brown before him, set the ball rolling. “They wanted to lead by example,” Cottingham says.

The United States government pulling out of the agreement left a weight on state and city governments’ shoulders across the country. “That put a lot of pressure on U.S. cities. The cities had to step it up,” Cottingham notes.

Mayors Unite

At first, about 80 mayors across America pledged to honor the accords, Cottingham says. Now, that number has shot up to 430 mayors.

“Big cities, small cities, red states, blue states,” Cottingham says. “Everyone in between all coming together to say hey, We support the Paris agreement, what can we do?”

The City of Houston has advanced its goals through an emphasis on electric vehicles.

“That’s how we started investing in renewable energy. We’re one of the first cities early on to test out not just alternative fuels but really electric vehicles,” Cottingham says. “We have one of the largest green fleets in the country. That’s a pretty big commitment to make.”

The green transportation initiative launched back in 2002, and now the light duty passenger fleet is more than 50 percent hybrid.

“Vehicle manufacturers are saying that they’re going to start making more and more electric vehicles to the point that they might make only electric vehicles. That’s huge for Houston, for our emission reduction, for our air quality improvement,” Cottingham says.

Other initiatives and resources include the Brownfields Redevelopment Program, a push to revitalize core neighborhoods through creating economic growth and a safe and clean environment, the Bikeways Program, the Environmental Coordinating Council, Green Power Program, Green Building Resource Center and more.

Houston’s Climate Action Plan was spurred further by Hurricane Harvey, which reinforced the city’s complete reliance on the power grid.

“It’s not just that Hurricane Harvey was huge and impacted so many people, including City Hall. It’s not just that we were physically impacted, but the idea that we have had 500-year floods three years in a row. We can flood during any rainstorm. What we are doing today and what we are doing tomorrow makes a sustainably resilient city,” Cottingham says.

That’s the City of Houston. As far as the city of Houston goes, we aren’t nearly so sustainable. The majority of residents who drive are driving gas cars, which, with other modes of traditional transportation, leads to 47 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That contributes to Houston’s identity as one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the country, with 14.9 metric tonnes per year.

And solar panels? They’re just not always feasible or even possible, depending on if you live in an apartment and even more factors.

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Solar panels make up about 12% of the city government’s energy.

“But that’s not the only way to access renewable energy. All those different retail providers for electricity, every single one of them has a renewable component. So if anyone wants to, they can just go online and research how to go about it,” Cottingham says.

There are several factors that will make a huge difference in Houston as a whole’s sustainability trajectory — accessibility and affordability.

“What we’re trying to make sure as a city as we plan is to make sure that happens as quickly, and easily, and equitably as possible. It’s really easy to say everyone needs to get solar panels and buy a Tesla. That’s OK for some people. It’s not great for everyone,” Cottingham says.

“We’re trying to look into what we can do to make sure everyone benefits. That’s where big fleet conversion comes in — how can we work with the Metro bus system? What about more biking, more pedestrian hike and bike trails? It doesn’t have to just be cars.”

If Houstonians across the board want to make a greater push toward renewables, there’s a long way to go.  But anyone can look to Houston’s own city government as an example of what can be done.

“If we can show that a city as big as Houston, with its oil and gas history and industrial history, if we can use renewable energy in a responsible way, anyone can,” Cottingham says.

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