Flooding in downtown area
February 2018 flooding in downtown Cincinnati. Credit: Johanna Liming.

Cincinnati may seem an unlikely location for the nation’s largest city-owned solar array. But when Mayor John Cranley announced last year that he intended to create just that, the plan was in many ways a natural fit. Over the past decade, the Ohio city has taken increasingly aggressive steps to decarbonize its energy supply – and it’s seeing impressive results.

Unusual weather patterns have added new urgency to these efforts.

“Over the last few years we’ve seen a surge in major storm events that’s triggered a rash of stormwater related issues – sewer backups, flash flooding, landslides,” said Oliver Kroner, who works in the city’s Office of Environment and Sustainability. “We’ve even had some river flooding just over the last couple of weeks for the first time since 1997.”

Last year, the city spent $50 million responding to storm-related issues.

As climate impacts become more visible in southern Ohio, government officials and citizens alike increasingly support bold action, Kroner said.

“As we see these changes, they suddenly feel pressing. Where for a long time people may have said they really need to do something about climate change, the narrative has shifted, and the question now is, ‘What can I do?’”

Cincinnati’s renewable energy push

The city’s renewable energy efforts have grown out of its climate change action program, known as the Green Cincinnati Plan.

The plan was first adopted in 2008, after the city council voted unanimously to act on climate change. A second version was passed in 2013, and a third is being finalized.

Each iteration has added new layers, but the plan’s core objectives have remained consistent throughout: reducing greenhouse gas emissions while supporting broader municipal goals of saving money, creating jobs, and improving the local environment.

The 2008 version established emission reduction targets of 8 percent below 2006 levels by 2012, 40 percent by 2028, and 84 percent by 2050. The city’s official statistics indicate it is on track to meet these goals: By 2015, emissions stemming from government operations had fallen by 36 percent, and those generated by the community at large were down by 18 percent.

Cincinnati's greenhouse emissions and future targets graph
Cincinnati’s greenhouse gas emissions and future targets. Source: City of Cincinnati.

Renewable aggregation program

Some of the decline in emissions can be attributed to population loss, but municipal actions have played a key role. In particular, a renewable electricity aggregation program launched in 2011 has proven to be an effective tool for reducing carbon emissions. By pooling local residents and small businesses to create a critical mass of consumers, the government says it has been able to negotiate with energy suppliers to secure lower prices on renewables.

As a result, Cincinnati is now the nation’s fourth-largest buyer of residential green energy, and more than 80 percent of its homes run on renewable electricity. Last year, it became the first U.S. city to add green natural gas to its aggregation offering.

The program has been a win-win for customers and the environment, saving households millions on their collective energy bills and cutting annual emissions by approximately 250,000 tons.

As the first of its kind in a major U.S. city, the aggregation initiative has drawn attention from across the nation. On its strengths, Cincinnati was designated a 2013 Green Power Community of the Year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and, in the same year, named a finalist in the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour City Challenge.

Bulk buying leads to growth in residential solar

Another city-led renewables program, Solarize Cincy, has led to significant growth in residential photovoltaic arrays since it launched in 2015. It uses a bulk buying program to help households reduce the cost of solar installations.

Reaching the public with the message that solar panels are cheaper and more effective than ever has been crucial to the effort. Marketing materials emphasize the program’s potential to substantially reduce household utility bills, and a simple online form offers free personalized assessments that describe financial incentives and estimate monthly savings.

The result: Residential solar installations in Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, shot up by 81 percent during the program’s first year.

‘Do what we can in our corner of the world …’

Building on these successes, Mayor Cranley, a Democrat elected to a second term in November 2017, in recent months has announced a round of ambitious new initiatives. “I believe that we have to do what we can, in our corner of the world, to live up to our moral responsibility to care for this Earth,” Cranley said in a September speech.

On the same day that President Trump announced his intention that the U.S. would pull out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, Cranley committed to powering all municipal operations with renewable energy by 2035. To make headway on this goal, he proposed building a 25-megawatt solar installation on city land. When complete, it is projected to produce enough energy to power the equivalent of 3,000 homes. Construction is expected to begin in 2019.

“Those are obviously big investments that the city does not have to do, by any means,” said Ryan Mooney-Bullock, the communications and program manager at local environmental nonprofit Green Umbrella. “[Local officials] have been really committed to decreasing the city’s contribution to climate change.”

To reduce the government’s carbon footprint in the short term, Cranley recently signed a deal with a local energy supplier to provide 100 percent green power to most municipal buildings through 2021. This initiative is expected to lead to a 9.1 percent cut in emissions stemming from city operations, and to reduce annual expenses by more than $100,000.

City’s new focus on fairness and equity

For the latest iteration of the Green Cincinnati plan, the authors added a new lens of evaluation for each of the proposed actions: equity.

Reflecting this new focus, the plan’s revised energy section proposes to build on current programs; the plan is to promote renewable generation and energy efficiency by targeting low- and moderate-income residents with tailored financing options and communications strategies.

Because these households often spend a disproportionate amount of their income on utilities, they are expected to benefit significantly from cost savings associated with these programs.

Kroner says he and his colleagues hope this and similar efforts can help struggling communities today while lessening their climate-related challenges in the future.

“We’re realizing that when you look at climate change and who it will impact, in a lot of ways it’s a risk amplifier and will make existing problems worse,” he said. “We need to do better to prepare our low-income communities.”

Sarah Wesseler is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.