ACEEE’s Top 10 US cities for clean energy progress — how does your city rank?

by Brianna Crandall — August 21, 2019 — US cities are ramping up their clean energy efforts, notably with stricter energy-saving rules for buildings, but only a few cities appear on track to meet their community-wide climate goals, according to the 2019 City Clean Energy Scorecard released recently by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

For the first time, the ACEEE Scorecard tracks policy efforts to advance renewable energy in addition to energy efficiency, because both are needed to build a clean energy future and address climate change. It is touted as the most comprehensive national report that tracks city progress toward climate goals.

ACEEE ranking and map of top US cities for clean energy progress

ACEEE’s 2019 City Clean Energy Scorecard tracks cities’ progress toward climate goals to advance renewable energy as well as energy efficiency, in five policy areas. Graphic courtesy ACEEE. Click to enlarge.

The Scorecard shows that cities took more than 265 initiatives to advance efficiency and renewable energy between January 2017 and April 2019, ranging from modest but practical efforts such as Philadelphia’s teleworking for public employees to cutting-edge policies such as Washington, DC’s new high-performance standards for existing buildings.

Yet the Scorecard also reveals that most cities with climate goals are either not on track to achieve them or are not yet tracking progress. One-third (27) of the 75 cities surveyed have yet to even set greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. Of the 48 with targets, 21 are not yet fully tracking their progress. The remaining 27 have data, and of those, eight are not projected to be close to achieving their targets and eight are projected to make substantial progress but still fall short. Only 11 are on track to meet their GHG reductions goals.

Cities vary widely in their policies and performance. The Scorecard, which ranks cities on more than 50 metrics, indicates these key findings:

  • Boston retains its first-place ranking, earning 77.5 out of a possible 100 points. It’s followed by San Francisco; Seattle; Minneapolis; Washington, DC; New York City; Los Angeles; Denver; Austin and Portland. This year, Minneapolis adopted policies requiring homes and apartment buildings to disclose their energy use to buyers or renters. New York City recently established programs calling for large buildings that benchmark energy use to post their energy performance ratings.
  • ​​Cincinnati, Hartford, and Providence are “Cities to Watch.” They did not make the top 10 but stand out for adopting several major clean energy policies and programs since early 2017, improving their ranks since the last scorecard. Hartford created an energy improvement district, began converting its streetlights to LEDs, and has taken steps to improve location efficiency through improvements to the zoning code.
  • Cities expanded efforts to save energy in new and existing buildings. Since 2017, nine cities — Las Vegas, Mesa, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Reno, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Tucson — adopted more-stringent building energy codes, and five advocated for their states to do so. In addition, eight cities — Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York, Reno, Salt Lake City, San José, and Washington, DC — adopted efficiency requirements for existing buildings.
  • Cities increased their push to reduce GHGs from the transportation sector but not as much as they did with buildings. To slash emissions, they need to accelerate their action. Since 2017, nine cities developed targets to increase public transit, biking, and walking in lieu of driving.
  • Some cities are engaging with and investing in low-income communities and communities of color. Still, they have significant room for improvement. They can tap planning models — like those used in Minneapolis, Providence, and Seattle — to jumpstart their activities.

ACEEE senior research manager David Ribeiro, the lead report author, pointed out:

Cities are making impressive clean energy gains — taking big steps to waste less energy and encourage more renewable power. But they have more to do. Cities must continue their push for innovative buildings policies, take greater steps to tackle transportation emissions, and better track progress to know which investments have the greatest impact. With their innovation, ingenuity, and resolve, they can build prosperous and equitable low-carbon communities.

#1-ranking Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh remarked:

Nearly three-quarters of Boston greenhouse gas emissions comes from our buildings. We’re working hard to improve the performance of those buildings and looking at how new ones can be built smarter. If we’re to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, we have to accelerate our actions and lead by example. That’s why we’ve already surpassed our municipal climate goals and reduced emissions by 37 percent. I’m proud of Boston for leading the rankings once again and am inspired by other cities for their bold action.

The 2019 report, ACEEE’s fourth ranking of cities, scores 75 large US cities, 24 more than the group’s previous edition in 2017. It includes all 25 cities participating in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge, eight of which land on ACEEE’s Top 10 list.

This expanded Scorecard adds city efforts to encourage renewable energy, the impact of their policies, and their investment in and engagement with low-income communities and communities of color. Because of these extensive changes, ACEEE cautions against simple comparisons to past scores and ranks.

The Scorecard, using information collected as of April 1, 2019, ranks cities in five policy areas:

  • Local government operations: Austin, Boston, and Orlando tie for first place in this area. They have policies to increase efficiency in city government, procurement, and asset management.
  • Community-wide initiatives: Washington, DC, takes top honors, followed by Seattle. They have GHG reduction goals, strategies to mitigate urban heat islands, and policies or programs to plan for distributed energy systems such as on-site renewables.
  • Buildings policies: Boston ranks first, followed by New York, San José, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. These cities have adopted or advocated for stringent building energy codes, devoted resources to building code compliance, and used incentives or requirements to address energy consumption in existing buildings.
  • Energy and water utilities: San Diego stars in this category, followed by Los Angeles, Boston, Chula Vista, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. Their energy utilities have efficiency programs delivering significant savings, and the cities and utilities are working together to increase their use of renewable energy.
  • Transportation policies: San Francisco takes the top spot, followed by Washington, DC; Boston; Portland and Seattle. These cities promote public transit, efficient vehicles and vehicle infrastructure, and freight system efficiency.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Environment Program and The Kresge Foundation’s Environment Program were major funders of the 2019 ACEEE report.

For the map of national rankings, videos, city sheets, the full 2019 report, a streaming audio replay of a webinar about the report, and previous years’ Scorecards, see the City Clean Energy Scorecard page on the ACEEE website.