Lasting change usually starts gradually; then it reaches a tipping point where it becomes exponential and transformational. Most of the technologies that have changed our lives, including the Internet and cell phones, have followed this pattern. The only difference is that the path from gradual to exponential change now takes less time across most industries. For instance, it took nearly 30 years for electricity to reach 60% of U.S. households, becoming exponential 20 years after its introduction. It took the Internet only half that time, 15 years, to reach the same milestone, with exponential growth setting in less than ten years after it was introduced. The following Harvard Business Review chart shows this trend for several of the technologies that we now take for granted.
Green Cities: Reaching the Tipping Point?
We may be seeing a similar growth path when it comes to renewables for cities. While a clean graph like the one above cannot be made when it comes to renewable electricity for cities (there is no official ‘launch date’ for renewable electricity), the data we have indicates an exponential growth of renewables in the power mix that now feeds cities around the world.
A few weeks ago, The Guardian wrote an article that indicated, “The number of cities getting at least 70% of their total electricity supply from renewable energy has more than doubled since 2015.” That uptake in renewables occurred in only two years (data is for the period 2015-2017), pointing to exponential growth, which according to Google is “growth whose rate becomes ever more rapid in proportion to the growing total number or size.”
Specifically, The Guardian indicates that data published by the environmental impact non-profit organization CDP shows that over 100 cities around the world are “mostly powered” by renewables, which they define as 70% of the electricity generated by carbon-free sources such as solar and wind. The article highlights, “Large urban centers as disparate as Auckland, Nairobi, Oslo and Brasília were successfully moving away from fossil fuels…evidence of a changing tide [according to] Kyra Appleby, CDP’s director of cities,” who added, “our data shows much commitment and ambition, cities not only want to shift to renewable energy but, most importantly, they can.”
Cities are Becoming Sustainable Because They Can
The last word in the statement by Ms. Appleby above―”can”―captures the very essence behind this transformation in cities. Sustainability has shifted from a wishful aspiration that came with expensive trade-offs for cities, to a winning formula for lowering the environmental impact of cities while thriving economically and, most importantly, for improving the quality of lives for citizens. This is especially impactful as 54% of humanity now lives in cities, according to data by the World Bank.
As we previously wrote in our post, Cities as Agents of Sustainability, “Cities have significantly more flexibility to take action than countries do” when it comes to tackling the global problem of greenhouse emissions. This is good news because it is cities that contribute 75% of global emissions. This flexibility comes because cities today have more choices than they have ever had to become sustainable. Available options range from sourcing electricity from wind and solar―both centrally and at the edge of the grid―to smart buildings that leverage a city’s geographical conditions to save, and even produce energy, to transportation alternatives such as electric and hydrogen vehicles.
Smart cities, a definition that has become synonymous with innovative cities, always incorporate sustainable energy and greener transportation. These are two high impact areas for cities that directly affect citizens’ quality of life every day, whose demands for sustainable options have been key to the exponential growth of renewables over the past two years.
Arguably, Greener Options Seem to be Growing Exponentially
The options available to governments, industry, and citizens to minimize the environmental impact of their cities have multiplied. Wind and solar, for instance, have reached record levels, driven by the utilities themselves, who have been incorporating alternative energy sources into the grid at an exponential pace. New technologies are also on the horizon, such as Hydrogen 2.0, which will enable cities to complement existing energy sources, such as solar and wind, with the 24/7 availability of clean and affordable hydrogen produced on-site from water.
Furthermore, these same technologies are being implemented in buildings, factories, and homes, creating green power at the edge of the grid and feeding it to the electricity system. Sustainable transportation has experienced a similar level of adoption and innovation. Entire fleets of public buses powered by electricity and hydrogen are now common in many cities. Meanwhile, electric vehicles, mere outliers just a few years ago, are everywhere.
The most important driver for the exponential growth of sustainable cities, however, is human. As The Guardian wrote, “Much of the drive for climate action at the city level in the past year has been spurred on by the global covenant of more than 7,400 mayors,” around the world who committed to keep moving forward with the transition to more sustainable cities. Given the impact that cities have on greenhouse gas emissions globally, the local commitment and action from cities put us on the right path to realize a brighter future for all.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.