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This Revolution is Not Being Televised

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In the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned. A toxic cocktail of oil and other pollutants caught fire along a section of the river winding its way through the heart of Cleveland. That Sunday morning blaze – one of many that plagued the river and others like it over the years—awakened Clevelanders with its acrid smoke. It also helped spark a national environmental movement.

But burning rivers weren’t the only threats facing American cities in 1969—failed redevelopment policies, the rise of the suburbs and racial injustice made cities a microcosm of bigger problems facing our nation. That same year, Army private Frank Jackson returned to Cleveland after serving in the Vietnam War. Over the next decades, Jackson helped Cleveland work its way back, first as a community activist, then city councilman and finally as its mayor, a position he holds today.

“By buying a piece of the 21st Century clean energy economy, mayors, moms and major corporations are prompting a long over-due conversation about the future of our nation’s electricity system. ”

Lou Leonard
Vice President, Climate Change

Although far from perfect, thanks to Mayor Jackson and others like him, many of today’s cities are again becoming great places to live, places for innovation, culture and the arts, and smart development. But today’s cities do share something with their predecessors from 1969—cities are again places of revolution. This new quiet revolution doesn’t show up in magazines or the nightly news, though it should. But like all revolutions, it is about power—in this case, electricity.

At first glance, electricity hardly seems the stuff of revolution. It quietly powers our iPhones, LED lights and toothbrushes. Through electric vehicles, clean electricity can even help replace the dirty oil that runs our cars. But unfortunately, in the United States most of our electricity is filthy and planet-destroying.

Thanks to the coal and gas used in most power plants, generating electricity produces one-third of our annual carbon pollution, the largest share. Together these plants emit far more pollution than most other countries and are a major driver of climate impacts we are already seeing—like stronger storms, deadlier heat waves and record droughts. So electricity looks ripe for revolution after all.

Right now the US EPA is working on a set of standards to help clean up the dirtiest power plants, which you can support here. But EPA is not leading the charge; they are following the crowd, because there is a quiet revolution already happening in our power system. More mayors, as well as moms and major corporations are leading the way and it is hard not to hear the big change coming. In different ways, these three groups are choosing to opt out of dirty electricity and use their purchasing power to revolutionize the way we generate and distribute power in America.

Mayor Jackson’s Cleveland and other cities like Cincinnati are using largely overlooked state “community choice” laws to bundle together the electricity demand from residents and small businesses to buy 100% renewable energy credits. In the process, they are decreasing electricity costs when compared to their old dirty power.

Community choice isn’t just for big cities. In Illinois alone more than 90 cities and towns of all sizes made the switch to 100% renewable electricity by buying renewable energy credits through community choice. In California, Sonoma County and Marin County residents are choosing renewable energy. Other states—Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—also allow their communities to choose. Power-hungry New York State could be next. Shouldn’t your state allow community choice?

Mayors aren’t the only revolutionaries. Moms are too, and they are keeping it simple: if plugging into the grid means harmful emissions from dirty electricity, they’ll just make their own clean energy. With the price of solar panels plunging by 99% since the 1970s and 60% over the past 5 years, rooftop solar makes simple economic sense; saving the planet is just a fringe benefit. New payment options – including leasing, which eliminates upfront investment – make it easier than ever. In places like Washington, DC, it’s now even possible to get into the renewable energy game without a roof! Is going solar right for you?

Few think of major corporations as revolutionaries—including the companies themselves—but more and more are joining the change game. Big energy consumers like Mars and Walmart already have decided to shift to 100% renewable energy, but like the moms and mayors they often can’t get clean power just by buying what their utility is selling. That’s why some are taking their power demand on the open market by investing directly in wind or solar farms. But in many states, utility rules prohibit or limit these power purchase agreements.

Running into barriers at every turn, companies are beginning to speak up. This summer, 12 major corporations, including Mars, Walmart, Sprint, Facebook and others, publicly identified these roadblocks and called for new opportunities for collaboration with utilities and energy suppliers to increase their ability to buy clean, renewable energy.

By buying a piece of the 21st Century clean energy economy, mayors, moms and major corporations are prompting a long over-due conversation about the future of our nation’s electricity system. For example, as more and more consumers install solar panels and stop purchasing dirty electricity from their utility, the traditional cost recovery model for many utilities becomes harder and harder to sustain. This quiet change is starting to send shock waves through the system.

Every revolution has its naysayers. Some will tell you that low natural gas prices are the true story of our changing electricity system. Don’t believe them. These moms, mayors and major corporates are moving right to the real future of electricity: clean, increasingly cheaper and certainly safer solar, wind and other renewables.

And when you need some inspiration remember Mayor Jackson’s Cleveland—once the poster child for pollution, it’s now leading a clean energy revolution quietly happening all around you.

This story was originally published on The Huffington Post on September 10, 2014.