Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota. Credit: Matthew Paulson / Creative Commons

Madison, Wisconsin’s clean transportation investments helped propel it ahead in an annual ranking of clean energy and energy efficiency plans.

The analysis of 100 major cities by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) revealed that nationwide, cities are largely not on track to meet their own greenhouse gas reduction goals, and/or they don’t collect data that would allow them to meaningful log such emissions reductions. ACEEE rated cities on building sustainability, renewable energy, transportation, government initiatives and community impact. 

Overall, Midwestern cities lagged behind the coasts, with only three cities in the region ranking in the top 20: Minneapolis at 4th, Chicago at 12th, and St. Paul at 20th. Madison, at 39th, was the most improved city nationwide, while Milwaukee dropped significantly from last year’s report to 53rd.

On the greenhouse gas emissions front, 63 cities out of the 100 surveyed nationwide adopted a reductions goal. However, only 38 track data in a way that would allow them to meet those goals, and just 19 are on track to do so. “It’s difficult to change what you’re not tracking in the first place,” said Stefen Samarripas, local policy manager at ACEEE and lead author of the report. 

ACEEE prioritized race and equity in the rankings for the first time this year. Cities generally did not perform well on that front, with some dropping in the rankings as a result. Only 30 of the 177 new clean energy actions taken by the 100 cities were equity-driven.

The rankings also for the first time considered the transportation sector, responsible for the greatest share of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. Only 25 cities have adopted transportation sector goals. Three are on track to achieve them, a release from ACEEE said, and “17 of the 25 cities could not provide sufficient data to assess their progress.”

“When it comes to transportation, some cities have more influence on what happens with their transportation and transit systems than others,” Samarripas said. 

“When you do work to reduce energy use or greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, you’re going to need to work with a lot of partners outside city government. It may be the local transit authority or major companies that have freight going through. It may involve work with state government to think about different levers that can be pulled to reduce [transportation] energy use and emissions. Ultimately what we’ve seen on a national scale is transportation is the largest greenhouse gas-emitting sector in the U.S., and data indicates emissions are increasing.” 

Watching Wisconsin

Madison climbed to the 39th spot — up 25 from last year — in part because of its investments in clean transportation and electric vehicles. They include requiring all new parking structures to have electric vehicle charging and rolling out an electric bus rapid transit system by 2024. 

“The city has initiated a complete overhaul of our fleet operations with a dramatic ramp-up to over 60 electric vehicles, more than 100 hybrid-electric vehicles, and Wisconsin-made biodiesel for all trucking,” said Jessica Price, the city’s resiliency and sustainability manager. Price added that the “Madison Fire Department is running North America’s first and only operational electric fire engine, made in Wisconsin.”

Three-quarters of Madison’s city operations are powered by renewable energy, with a goal of 100% renewable power for city operations by 2030. Price said that “achieving this goal requires us to take an innovative, multifaceted approach that has so far included behind-the-meter solar at city facilities, participation in [utility] MGE’s Renewable Energy Rider program, and purchase of renewable energy credits.”

Madison has installed 1.3 megawatts of solar on city facilities, and 2 MW through city-supported community solar installations, according to Price.

“The majority of the solar installations at city facilities were completed through our Green Power solar workforce training program, which prepares people for jobs in the renewable energy sector,” Price said.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, lost points compared to other cities for its lack of investment in municipal renewable energy, a realm where the city has been directly hampered by opposition from utility We Energies and the state’s lack of clarity over third-party solar ownership. 

This fall a bill was introduced in the legislature that may finally make it clear third-party ownership is legal, and clear the way for Milwaukee to finish a planned solar installation on its municipal buildings, with the panels owned by developer Eagle Point. Currently, Milwaukee has 209 kilowatts of solar on city buildings, according to ACEEE.

Wisconsin state law also does not allow localities to make building energy use requirements that are stricter than state standards, a measure that can inhibit individual cities’ progress. 

“Wisconsin’s building codes lag behind the national standard for energy efficiency and green building practices, and state law restricts our ability to establish more effective local energy codes,” Price said. “Nonetheless, we are working with local stakeholders to collaboratively develop solutions to help our residents save energy and reduce utility bills.” 

Equity and moving forward

Madison was among cities that earned high marks for equity, with programs including subsidized energy efficiency upgrades in affordable rental housing, and a focus on resiliency for vulnerable communities most impacted by climate change effects such as flooding and extreme heat.

Minneapolis earned accolades for its commitment to equity, including its Green Zones Initiative. The city identified two neighborhoods most impacted by pollution and worked with them to develop five-year local sustainability plans. More than two-thirds of low-income Minneapolis residents have access to high-quality public transit, a much higher percentage than most cities. In Madison, one in five low-income residents has high-quality transit access.

Samarripas said cities need to make equity intrinsic to all their sustainability investments. 

“Historically marginalized communities across the country are often hit first and worst in terms of feeling the effects of climate change,” he said. “First and foremost, cities need to make sure they’re taking an equitable approach in conducting community engagement before and during [implementing policies] and in evaluating their policies and programs. It’s really important to make sure those historically marginalized communities are at the table.”

Prioritizing equity is only more important given the pandemic’s effect on marginalized communities. The pandemic also affected how cities have addressed and envisioned their sustainability plans, ACEEE noted, derailing some efforts but also pushing cities to focus on the future.

“In the months right after lockdowns hit the country, we saw cities retooling and refocusing their energy on planning efforts, maybe not able to launch the programs they were hoping to,” Samarripas said.

“The pandemic hit cities in different ways — some cities really saw substantial budget cuts, and staff from a sustainability or resilience office shifted to focus on other work. Some cities re-envisioned their [sustainability] work so that it will align with all the other city priorities [elevated by the pandemic] — things like focusing on local economic recovery [and] preparing for crises.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.