How Trump galvanized one community’s renewable energy goal

South Lake Tahoe, located on the California/Nevada border, has joined several dozen other municipalities in articulating a goal of 100 percent renewable electricity. Photo/City of South Lake Tahoe

How Trump helped to galvanize goal of 100% renewables for S. Lake Tahoe

 by Allen Best

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — While President Donald Trump has vowed to bring back coal, South Lake Tahoe is pushing in the opposite direction.

The city council of South Lake Tahoe, a city that straddles the California-Nevada border at the base of the Heavenly ski area, last week adopted a goal of having 100 percent renewable electricity by 2032. The resolution also sets a goal of reducing community carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030. This would include not just electricity, but transportation and home heating.

Austin Sass

“South Lake Tahoe’s commitment for 100 percent renewable electricity is driven by our community,” said Mayor Austin Sass . “The passion to protect our natural resources made this commitment possible, and reflects the city’s vision statement  to ‘reflect the National Treasure in which we live.’”

South Lake Tahoe joins other mountain towns in Utah and Colorado in embracing the goal of dramatic carbon reduction in its electrical supply.

Representatives of a wide variety of organizations, including local chambers of commerce, testified in support of the resolution. A petition signed by 1,000 people was given to the council.

Jenny Hatch, who directs a local environmental organization, the Sierra Nevada Alliance, says she believes broad support for such bold, local ambitions has solidified in the last two years.

What has changed?

“The administration,” she answers, alluding to the election of Trump as president. “We’re seeing that we have to act locally, and I think people are more empowered do to that than before. That’s a silver lining in the change of administrations.”

Even before Trump became president, other municipalities had been vowing to trigger reform in how electricity is generated. Utah’s Park City adopted a similar goal and was followed by Salt Lake City and Moab.

In Colorado, three Front Range cities —Boulder, Fort Collins, and Pueblo—have adopted dramatic carbon reduction goals. Aspen several years ago achieved 100 percent renewables in its city utility, which provides electricity for roughly two-thirds of the city’s demand.

South Lake Tahoe’s effort was galvanized by a visit in January from a representative of the Climate Reality Project, an organization started by Al Gore. A coalition of several groups and individuals was formed to help shape a plan to get a resolution adopted by the city council.

Among those individuals involved at both Park City and South Lake Tahoe was Bryn Carey. The president and founder of Ski Butlers, a ski rental chain with outlets in Park City, South Lake Tahoe, and 35 other locations in North America, he started engaging with the issue of climate change about four years ago.

“The idea of going to 100 percent renewable seems like a really daunting task, very complicated. We proved with Park City that it wasn’t as challenging perhaps people might think,” he says. “The first step is to adopt a really ambitious goal, and the second step is to figure out how to do it.”

In the case of Park City, electricity supplier Rocky Mountain Power has an option of providing the municipality with renewables or lose its right to supply the city.

“I think we are going to meet or exceed our goal, because things are changing so fast right now – in a good way,” he adds.

South Lake Tahoe already gets about 45 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including a major new utility-scale solar farm in northern Nevada. The power comes from Liberty Utilities.

Nicholas Exline, a key driver of the initiative, says he expects South Lake Tahoe to make the goal part of its discussions with Liberty Utilities next year as the two parties negotiate a franchise renewal. He thinks that Liberty is receptive.

Nick Exline

Exline says another key part of the strategy is to forge partnerships with other local jurisdictions, such as California’s Placer County. The idea is that the more that renewable energy can be scaled, the more cost effective it is.

Cost of both wind and solar have plummeted in the last five years, but the challenge of intermittency remains. The sun doesn’t always shine, nor does the wind always blow. With enough transmission, much of this intermittency can be solved. The wind is always blowing somewhere. But energy strategists also say that cost-effective storage must be achieved before these robust renewable energy ambitions are realized. Even some climate scientists who have studied energy have concluded that nuclear power may be necessary.

Exline, a development planning consultant, sees the path toward 100 percent renewables as attainable. “Battery storage technology is much farther along than most people recognize,” he says.

But the broader goal of community carbon reduction poses significant challenges. The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in South Lake Tahoe comes from heating poorly insulated housing thrown up in boom periods of the past. His own house, built in 1971, had no insulation when he bought it. He’s thrown every spare nickel into adding insulation.

“It’s really a huge challenge going forward,” he says. But while reducing greenhouse gases, retrofitting older houses can make them more comfortable and less expensive to heat.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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