Navigant Research Blog

Do Cities Need Large Hydro to Go 100% Renewable?

Ryan Citron — November 11, 2015

Cities are becoming increasingly proactive in setting targets for their utilities to shift from fossil fuel power generation to renewable energy resources. There are currently three cities in the United States that run on 100% renewable energy, and there are 96 cities globally that have pledged to accomplish the same feat. Although only small cities in North America have made the transition thus far (including Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; and Greensburg, Kansas), large cities such as Vancouver, Canada and San Francisco, California have also set targets to transition to 100% renewable energy. While these cities are using significant amounts of solar and wind energy resources, having access to large hydropower generation is a luxury common to cities with 100% renewable generation goals. Vancouver, for example, has been using hydropower to supply about 90% of its electricity throughout 2015.

Hydro: Helpful but Unnecessary

Nevertheless, regions without access to hydropower are able to both economically and technically transition to renewables, according to researchers and engineers from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley. The universities developed a state-by-state plan under The Solutions Project that shows how each state could convert to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Using Colorado as a non-hydroelectricity-intensive system example, the state would need to get the vast majority of its electricity from wind and solar, specifically 55% of its electricity from wind power and 40.8% from a variety of solar applications (including 15% from concentrating solar power [CSP] plants, 17.6% from solar PV plants, 4.2% from residential rooftop PV, and 4% from commercial/government rooftop PV). Geothermal (3%) and a very small amount of hydroelectric (1.2%) would constitute the remainder under the plan.

According to the study, transitioning Colorado’s energy resources in this way would create over 70,000 construction and operation jobs, save $7.4 billion in avoided health costs per year, and would provide annual energy cost savings of $312 per person in 2050. The Solutions Projects seems to demonstrate that even in states with little or no hydroelectric electricity supply, it is still technically and economically feasible to transition to 100% renewable energy.

Economic Opportunity, Not Sacrifice

Of the 96 cities that have pledged to decarbonize their electricity supply, 86% believe taking action on climate change presents an economic opportunity. According to the 2015 Smart Energy for Smart Cities report from Navigant Research, that economic opportunity will be substantial; the global smart energy for smart cities technology market is expected to grow from $7.3 billion in revenue in 2015 to $20.9 billion in 2024.

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