U.S. cities and towns made deals for a record 3.7 gigawatts of renewables in 2020

Energize Weekly, April 7, 2021

Cities and towns across the U.S. installed or purchased a record 3.7 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity in 2020, a 23 percent increase over 2019, according to the clean energy consultant, RMI.

The RMI analysis was based on data from the Local Government Renewables Action Tracker, which showed nearly 100 municipalities and counties in 33 states completed 143 deals.

“Cities across the United States inked deals of all types and sizes, a positive shift toward renewable energy that cities must continue to pursue in order to achieve broader sustainability goals,” RMI researchers Yuning Liu and Tatsatom Gonçalves wrote in a blog post.

The amount of renewable energy resources acquired annually by municipalities has grown steadily over the past five years, with the biggest gains since 2018.

In 2020, the deals ranged from a 400-kilowatt community solar garden in Wallowa, Ore., population 804, to a retail contract signed by Houston, population 2.3 million, for 492 megawatts (MW) of solar capacity.

The Houston deal was the biggest of the year and the biggest single deal ever signed by a municipality. In general, deals are getting bigger with the average size nearly doubling between 2015 and 2020, from 14 MW to 26 MW.

Still, there many smaller projects in smaller communities, such as a 3.2-MW solar installation in Ellsworth, Maine, population 8,000, and a 1-MW solar project in Hemingford, Neb., population 774.

After Houston, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s power purchase agreement (PPA) for 331 MW of wind power from the Red Cloud Wind Farm in New Mexico was the second largest transaction for the year and all time.

“Even as we confront the immediate challenge of COVID-19, we remain laser-focused on building a stronger, more resilient, more sustainable, and equitable city,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in announcing the deal in October 2020.

“The Red Cloud Wind Farm agreement shows that solutions to the climate crisis have never been cheaper and helps realize our promise of lower emissions, less pollution, and more clean energy innovation,” Garcetti said.

In November, San Jose Clean Energy also signed its first wind PPA for 225 MW from another New Mexico wind farm built by the same developer as the Red Cloud project.

Off-site PPAs from wind and solar installations accounted for 40 percent of all the deals made by local governments in 2020.

“These deals helped make this growth possible by allowing cities to buy large amounts of electricity … at agreed upon prices for fixed periods directly from solar or wind farms,” Liu and Gonçalves said. “These large-scale, off-site purchases can help cities plan better by creating certainty about future energy costs, moving cities significantly closer to the goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy.”

Some cities that did not have the option of doing PPAs worked with their local utilities. Charlotte, N.C., for example, signed a contract to purchase electricity from a 35-MW local solar project through Duke Energy’s Green Source Advantage program.

The program is an example of a utility green tariff enabling Charlotte to negotiate directly with a renewable-power developer on pricing and timing of electricity, which is then delivered by Duke Energy.

In Arizona, Tempe, Gilbert and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community each joined Salt River Project’s green tariff program to get a small portion of the energy from a 300-MW local solar facility.

Some cities have also moved to create public-private partnerships with local institutions to buy electricity. Nashville and Vanderbilt University, for example, joined the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Green Invest green tariff program to build a local, 125-MW solar project and purchase its electricity.

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