ANN ARBOR, MI – In its A2Zero carbon-neutrality plan, Ann Arbor set an ambitious goal last year to power the entire community with 100% renewable energy by 2030.
As city leaders look to move forward, they’re now forming key criteria and guiding principles for investments in energy efficiency and generating and purchasing renewable energy, including local solar installations and potential bulk purchases of renewable energy from elsewhere.
Missy Stults, the city’s sustainability manager, gave City Council an overview of the draft criteria and principles Monday night, Jan. 11, while noting investments likely are going to have to be made outside Ann Arbor.
An initial assessment of solar energy potential in Ann Arbor showed about 78 megawatts could be installed, and that won’t be enough, Stults said.
“We use about 440 megawatts, so we can’t actually even generate everything we use locally,” she said.
There still are opportunities to lower energy use through energy efficiency, but it’s unlikely the city will ever be able to generate all its energy locally, Stults said.
Since the city may want to keep investments local as much as possible, Stults asked council members what local means to them, whether that means keeping it within the county or state, or within a 100-mile or 150-mile radius of the city.
“There are things that are really impressive that can happen here and there are things that are really impressive that can happen somewhere else,” she told council.
“If the goal is let’s move fast and let’s get something big and check it off, well, I know we don’t have land for 440 megawatts sitting idle in the county, so I would have to go somewhere else in Michigan to find that.”
Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, said local to him means Michigan and the city has to deal with state-level constraints on what it can and can’t do.
Council Member Julie Grand, D-3rd Ward, suggested she’s OK with making renewable energy investments outside Ann Arbor, saying within the county boundaries is still local.
There also needs to be a push to get the community to recognize people need to live sustainable lifestyles, said Council Member Erica Briggs, D-5th Ward.
“We can’t just not live a sustainable lifestyle but sort of pretend we are by … shifting the balance elsewhere,” she said.
Ramlawi agreed there needs to be more focus on changing people’s behavior and reducing consumption.
Stults told council she wanted guidance on what projects she might bring forward that could get council excited.
“Is it going to be changes to the greenbelt acquisition process so solar is in? Is it going to be an RFP for a virtual power reduction agreement, which I will tell you about in a future meeting?” she said, hinting at discussions to come.
The first of the three core criteria Stults proposed Monday night is reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Solutions must reduce energy demand and/or power Ann Arbor’s electricity needs with renewable energy that is as close to carbon-neutral as possible,” it states.
The second criterion is that renewable energy and energy-efficiency investments must displace fossil fuels and be things that wouldn’t have happened without city investment.
“We want to make sure that our investment dollars actually do something, that we’re bringing new renewables on the grid or we’re doing new energy-efficiency work,” Stults said.
The third and final criterion is justice and equity, stating low-income and minority populations should be central in decision-making and should be priority targets for the benefits associated with energy solutions.
“Solutions must also respect the different capacities and lived experiences of members of our community and support fair and just compensation for those helping to create a renewable energy future,” it states.
“It’s about working with low-income people, making sure fair wages are paid for folks who are actually doing this work and creating the job force that we’re going to need longterm to solve this crisis,” Stults said of the climate crisis.
All future energy-related activities will need to meet the criteria or articulate why that’s not possible, Stults said.
In addition, there are five proposed guiding principles, the first being enhancing the resilience of people, the community and natural systems, and ensuring people — especially at-risk individuals and emergency services and personnel — have power during and after a disaster.
“We certainly don’t want the grid to go down, but it will at some point,” Stults said, suggesting creating micro grids and having battery storage can help create redundancy and resiliency.
The second principle states energy projects should be local as much as possible, with regional and state-level solutions given second consideration.
“When renewable energy solutions are not viable in Michigan, projects should be developed in partnership with environmental justice communities that have been disproportionately burdened by the extractive nature of the fossil fuel-based economy,” it states.
“People really do want to have some projects here that they can see, they can feel, they can touch, that are employing their neighbors or folks that they know,” Stults said.
“So, to the extent possible, we want to maximize how much we can develop locally. When we can’t do that super local, then expanding out.”
The third principle is speed, saying emission-reduction solutions should be capable of being deployed rapidly to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
“As fast as you can reduce emissions, it’s much, much better for the planet and for the likelihood of mitigating catastrophic changes,” Stults said.
“And the atmosphere doesn’t care where emissions reductions come from,” she added, noting this can be in conflict with keeping investments local if there are opportunities to invest in renewables elsewhere.
The fourth principle is finding energy solutions that are scaleable and can be designed for replication in other municipalities in the region and nationwide.
The fifth principle is finding energy solutions that are cost effective and as affordable as possible, while still aligning with the core criteria and guiding principles.
“This can sometimes be in tension with the other values,” Stults said of the affordability principle, recalling an article she read in The New York Times about solar panels.
“You can get some pretty cheap solar and it’s generated in workshops in China that are probably using forced labor. That’s a conflict that we will have,” she said, suggesting cost will be an important factor, but not the only one.
Council Member Lisa Disch, D-1st Ward, emphasized the need for speed.
“We are behind. We are already living in a terrible future ….” she said, arguing the city needs to think about future generations.
While she supports investing in Michigan as much as possible, Michigan is still cloudy and there are benefits from investing in other parts of country, she said.
There is a role for a big upfront push to get emissions down and buy time to make the shift to a less resource-intensive lifestyle and develop more things locally, Disch said.
City Council will be adopting the annual budget for the next year in May and the city is facing potential budget shortfalls.
Stults said she’s prepared multiple versions of her office’s budget, depending on what level of funding is available, and the city might not hit the 2030 A2Zero carbon-neutrality target if efforts are scaled back to a certain degree.
The criteria and principles discussed Monday night will go back to the city’s Energy Commission for more review and then come back to council for adoption, Stults said.
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