Juice: City Side

By Published On: August 3, 2007

As California presses toward greater energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions, state energy and environmental regulators must get serious about enlisting cities at the grassroots level to achieve real gains. California has 478 cities. Of the 37.2 million people who live in the state, 30.6 million live in incorporated cities. Cities also are home to the lion’s share of buildings–which use 39 percent of energy. They are also home to the biggest share of motor vehicles, which use another 28 percent of the energy. Cities heavily influence, if not outright control, how energy-using developments and transportation systems are shaped. With exclusive land-use authority, cities control what is built, how it’s built, and where it’s built. They determine whether people have to get in their cars and drive or can walk, ride bicycles, or take public transit. Municipalities have the power not only to enforce state building energy efficiency codes but supersede them. Cities control the median between the sidewalk and the street giving them power to create or not create an urban canopy that keeps buildings cooler in the summer. Municipalities in their own right are major energy users, from the many buildings, street lights, water pumps, and vehicles they own and operate to the embedded energy in the water they spray on expansive parks, athletic fields, golf courses, and parkways. Cities also are the level of government closest to the people. They operate libraries, senior centers, recreation centers, public pools. They hold parades and concerts, fill pot holes, write parking tickets, and send quarterly newsletters to residents. When people have a problem, they are most likely to call city hall first–be it the police, fire department, or mayor. For all of these reasons, cities are well positioned to be powerful allies of the California Air Resources Board, California Energy Commission, and other state agencies in reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. So what gives when a small city in California gets interested in going green with energy efficiency, solar power, clean transportation, and water conservation? My home town of South Pasadena might provide a clue. Last month it held a “Clean Air Car Show and Film Festival.” It was an effort to get folks interested in reducing their carbon footprints by purchasing hybrid cars and neighborhood electric vehicles, and using public transit. The show came on the heels of a new procurement policy adopted by the city that favors purchasing less polluting and more fuel efficient vehicles, including several new Toyota Priuses, for city staff to drive. The city had Southern California Edison conduct an energy audit outlining how its facilities can be tweaked to reduce electricity use right away. More importantly, perhaps, these new steps seem to signal a growing city interest in energy efficiency and global warming, including a possible green building standard and other environmental programs. Yet, while many agencies, companies and elected officials responded to the city’s invitation to participate in the daylong event, there were some conspicuous absences among the circle of energy and environmental regulatory agencies that are leading the charge on energy and global warming. Nowhere to be seen was the California Energy Commission–which has been wringing its hands about the impact of transportation on greenhouse gas emissions and large ill-planned developments on electricity demand. Also absent was the California Air Resources Board, which is charged with leading the clean up of greenhouse gases, not to mention setting clean air car standards. Granted, South Pasadena is but a small town and the CEC and CARB certainly cannot participate in every environmental fair up and down the state. But at least a couple thousand interested people showed up, many even from surrounding communities. Of all the possible choices that day, the local Congressional representative found time to spend a couple hours at the show, as did both the local state senator and assemblymember. Even a couple Al Gore emissaries came by to talk about his movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” When was the last time a couple thousand people turned up at a CEC or CARB meeting? Sure, the lack of participation of the two state agencies may have been disappointing, though understandable, but it was disturbing when members of the city council supportive of greening the town expressed little familiarity with the CEC and CARB, much less their programs and roles. I don’t think you can blame them. They are erudite people in their chosen professions. Their lack of knowledge has more to do with the seeming paucity of any CEC and CARB outreach and relevance to cities. For all the talk in Sacramento about the importance of land-use, green building, smart growth, and the rest in tackling the state’s energy supply and greenhouse gas problems, it evidently hasn’t reached small cities much, even though most of them lie in giant urban areas with traffic jams and smog. True, Los Angeles and San Francisco are tuned in, but consider that 414 of California’s cities have populations less than 100,000. Yes, they’re small, but they still represent a lot of people. Tomorrow, many of them will become medium-sized cities boasting populations of more than 100,000. Some of these small towns are even the ones where the much maligned developments featuring 3,000 square foot homes in hot inland areas miles from nowhere are springing up. Soon they will sport driveways full of low mileage pick up trucks and SUVs. The conspicuous absence of CEC and CARB on the city side begs the obvious question of whether all the talk in Sacramento about land-use and smart growth amounts to anything beyond ineffective chest beating. That’s a good question, especially when even leaders of cities who are interested in pursuing a green path get little acknowledgement from state agencies that are talking the talk about smart growth. To really change the world, these two agencies are going to have to start walking the walk. Here’s what the agencies might do to win the hearts and minds of city officials: -Take a cue from investor-owned utilities and have staff liaisons around the state to get to know city elected officials and managers and communicate state policies to them and assist them with accessing state grants and funding for energy and climate change programs. -Raise new revenue to fund local participation through a carbon tax or an emissions rights auction and fee authority vested in the Air Board under the state’s greenhouse gas reduction bill, AB 32. Once levied, the state then should provide the money to cities through categorical grants for specific activities that save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. -Work with cities to reach the broader populace of the state with energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction information and programs. Cities are a good gateway to people, because they are well known and often trusted by their residents. Until this happens, the reality is that most cities cannot be expected to plan smart growth projects, enforce ever more detailed and complicated energy standards for buildings, and attend to the growing list of suggestions and mandates emanating from Sacramento. Most small California cities have severely limited budgets and precious few ways to raise new money short of zoning for auto malls and big box retail plazas to generate sales tax. But that defeats the very purpose of energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction programs. In short, city leaders don’t need hundreds of pages of state guidelines and protocols to take action to cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, what they really need is a little money and some personal attention from Sacramento. Show them you care and they will do great things.

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