Missouri’s history is deeply tied to coal: The first commercial coal operations west of the Mississippi river took place there in the late 1800s, it currently obtains around 75 percent of its electricity from coal plants, and St. Louis, Missouri’s most populous city, is home to some of the biggest coal companies in the country, from Peabody Energy to Arch Coal.
But on Friday, the city’s leadership decided to take the city in a completely different direction, with the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously voting to adopt a goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035.
“This is the way of the future,” St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed told ThinkProgress. “If we want to be a modern city, we’re going to have to be a more renewable city.”
The vote comes as dozens of cities across the country have announced their intention to begin switching their electricity sector — and, in some cases, their entire economy — to renewable energy. According to the Sierra Club, which operates a Ready for 100 Campaign aimed at getting 100 cities to commit to going completely renewable, 46 cities, from San Diego, CA to Hanover, NH, have committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. St. Louis is now the largest city in the Midwest to join the movement.
“We’ve seen a lot of support for this in the broader community as well as leadership within the city,” Sara Edgar, an organizer for Beyond Coal with the Missouri Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “There is a recognition that this is something that will benefit ratepayers, it is something that will benefit public health, it’s an opportunity to create jobs in the region.”
As with most 100 percent renewable commitments, there’s a vast difference between setting a goal and actually achieving the desired outcome. For St. Louis, Friday’s vote signals the beginning of a long planning process wherein city officials would begin working with stakeholders to hammer out exactly how the city’s transition would take place. Obtaining 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in less than 20 years would be no small feat, as the St. Louis metropolitan region currently gets less than 5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar.
Before the vote, city leaders heard from a variety of stakeholders, from the state’s largest utility — Ameren — as well as environmental and community groups in an attempt to both gauge local interest and understand potential barriers to the resolution. According to Edgar, communities around St. Louis have for years been calling for better access to renewable energy options — calls that led Ameren to commit to deploying more wind energy throughout the region it its most recent integrated resource plan, a roadmap that utilities release every couple of years to chart the company’s path forward.
“The concern is that the transition is not happening fast enough,” Edgar said. “We still have a number of older coal plants that don’t have scrubbers on them that we could be transitioning away from more rapidly than we are.”
For organizers like Edgar and leaders like Reed, passing the resolution for 100 percent renewable energy isn’t just a response to community requests — it’s also a chance for St. Louis to take climate action into its own hands as the federal government dismantles environmental regulations, including a slew of climate actions. Following President Trump’s announcement in June that he would be withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, St. Louis’ mayor joined more than 80 mayors around the country in recommitting to the agreement’s commitments even without the federal government. For Lewis, adopting a goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is a codification of that promise.
“We have to lead on this, especially in these times that we are in where you see the Trump administration rolling back major initiatives all across the country,” Lewis said. “Trump and these guys don’t even believe in climate change. It is absolutely not fake news. But what that means is that cities, on a local level, are going to have to step up and begin to take ownership of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”
For a city, making the complete transition from a traditional, fossil fuel-based economy to 100 percent renewable energy can’t be done without cooperation from state and regional leaders and businesses. Electric grids are based on regional markets, and while Missouri has a renewable energy standard that requires utilities to gradually fill their portfolios with more clean energy sources, legislators removed any language requiring that those sources come from within the state. The state also caps how much energy a property owner is able to generate from solar panels to 100 kilowatts, or 400 panels, hampering solar’s growth potential within the state.
Environmental advocates hope that by adopting a 100 percent renewable energy standard, St. Louis can help influence policies at the state level that could help make renewable energy more accessible throughout the city and state. Other cities that have adopted 100 percent renewable energy goals have already seen the influence that such resolutions can hold over utilities or statewide policies — in Oregon, for instance, a large utility backtracked on plans to push forward with a natural gas facility after Portland and its surrounding county adopted a 100 percent renewable energy goal.
“At the state level, there’s certainly a number of barriers that have been created in terms of making clean energy readily accessible to everyone and allowing us to maximize our solar potential in the state,” Edgar said. “We’re really going to have to have everyone in the region come together and figure out how we do this together. There are certainly a number of things we can do at the city level, but at the state level and with regulatory structure, this is something where everyone is going to need to work together to achieve this goal.”
Cities do have a fair amount of autonomy over things like building codes and municipal transportation, which can help hasten the transition to renewable energy. Deploying a fleet of electric buses, for instance, along with new infrastructure for charging those vehicles, can help move the energy market in the state. And investing more money in energy efficiency programs, or revamping building codes to cut down on wasted energy and fuel, can translate to significant emissions cuts at a city level.
“We are excited about an opportunity to modernize St. Louis and have St. Louis on the forefront of helping to make a cleaner environment,” Lewis said.
But some community leaders, like Rodrick Burton, pastor of St. Louis’ New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, want to make sure that modernizing the city means modernizing the city for all its residents — especially low-income communities of color that have historically shouldered the majority of environmental pollution. For Burton, passing the 100 percent renewable resolution is merely the first step — the real work, he argues, will come when city leaders begin hammering out the details of the transition.
“Where the real work is going to be done is in the future as contracts and planning goes forward, to make sure that they are inclusive and not excluding minority communities and communities that have been dumping grounds for pollution,” Burton said. “It’s easy to say ‘We’re going to do 100 percent clean energy,’ but where the real work comes in when you say ‘OK, how is this going to play out.'”
Burton acknowledges that the city has been receptive, at least thus far, to the idea that issues of social justice and equity need to be written into the foundation of the 100 percent renewable resolution. Leaders like Lewis have already begun working on codifying those goals into the resolution, so that future leaders will have a blueprint for how to consider environmental and social justice when pursuing clean energy projects.
“As we set these things up, you have to structure them in such a way that you outline the decision making process and keep it flexible, but you also factor in to have stakeholder involvement along the way, so that no matter who is serving in office, the process is a transparent and open process that will meet its goal and take into account some of the failures we have had in the past,” Lewis said. “This is an iterative process. It’s a process where you end up layering that philosophy into whatever you do.”