York researchers investigate challenge of how to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy in urban cities

water and renewable energy

A recent report by researchers in York University’s Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change presents new findings on the statuses of international urban cities pursuing 100 per cent renewable energy, and analyzes the approaches of six cities in Canada and Europe that have adopted 100 per cent renewable energy plans.

The report, titled “Planning 100% Renewable Energy Urban Cities: Global Status and Solutions” was co-written by Christina E. Hoicka, associate professor in sustainable energy economics, and Jessica Conroy, a recent graduate of York’s Master of Environmental Studies program. Research presented in the report was completed at Hoicka’s Social Exergy + Energy Lab, which conducts research on renewable energy, community energy, gender and energy, Indigenous energy, energy justice, participation, innovation and diffusion in low-carbon energy transitions.

Christina E. Hoicka
Christina E. Hoicka

Transitioning to renewable energy is understood as an effective strategy to limit the rise in average global temperature to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and mitigate harmful climate change impacts. However, transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy presents a complex technological, political and social challenge for urban cities, and it is currently unclear how it can best be fully achieved.

The report documents urban cities planning to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy; examines each city’s current stage of the local energy planning process; and investigates the proposed solutions in city plans, including policy instruments, technological and innovative solutions and stakeholders involved.

Researchers found that globally, 276 urban cities have committed to or achieved various ambitions of 100 per cent renewable energy. While no ‘urban city’ has successfully achieved 100 per cent renewable energy city-wide, they located 20 that have commitments, and six with approved plans. The study focused on the six cities with 100 per cent renewable energy plans: Vancouver, Victoria and Saanich in B.C., Canada; and Paris, Malmö and Frankfurt in Europe.

An analysis of the plans found several common approaches that have been adopted to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy:

  • Each city will focus on demand reduction, energy conservation and improving energy efficiency first, in order to more easily switch to renewable energy.
  • All cities specified that renewable energy will be generated within city limits through technologies and innovations such as solar rooftop; on-site geothermal, on-site solar, biogas and wind; geothermal heating; renewable natural gas; microgrids; and district energy/district heat and cooling.
  • Each city also recognized the need to import renewable energy from outside of its geographic limits, but the European cities are adopting a different importation strategy than their Canadian counterparts. While Paris, Malmö and Frankfurt plan to engage surrounding districts and authorities in a decentralized approach, Saanich, Vancouver and Victoria will pursue a centralized strategy that relies on electricity provided by BC Hydro.
Jessica Conroy
Jessica Conroy

The results of this research demonstrate how challenging and ambitious it is for urban cities to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy. Urban communities are not the only communities engaged when urban cities plan for climate change, and the researchers emphasize the importance of adopting a multi-stakeholder approach involving both local and non-local actors.

On the local level, residents and community organizations need to be engaged, and societal acceptance is an important factor in the transition. However, because it is not possible to switch entirely to local energy generation within dense urban cities, cities will also need to work with other neighbouring municipalities, levels of government, and external stakeholders to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy.

This research was funded by a Critical Perspectives in Global Health Seed Grant from the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research at York University. Founded in 2015, the Institute is made up of global health leaders, researchers, practitioners and students addressing 21st century global health challenges focused in three areas: Planetary Health, Global Health & Humanitarianism, and Global Health Foresighting.

The full report can be accessed online.