City Climate Corner

Clean Energy Scorecard for Small Cities

Episode Summary

After introducing the podcast and what listeners can expect, our first episode looks at an analysis of clean energy efforts by 30 small cities around the country. We interview Dave Ribeiro, director of local policy at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), and explore the application to small cities of a scorecard previously used only for large cities.

Episode Notes

Intro to the podcast followed by an analysis of clean energy efforts by 30 small cities around the country. We interview Dave Ribeiro, director of local policy at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), and explore the application to small cities of a scorecard previously used only for large cities.

More Information and Links

Episode Transcription

Podcast Intro

Abby Finis  00:00

Cities produce more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. When it comes to local climate action, we often hear what larger cities are doing to reduce emissions and move toward climate justice. But what about small and mid-sized cities? Most household emissions in the US come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation. City Climate Corner explores how these cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:26

And I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner. 

Why we’re doing the podcast and an episode intro

Abby Finis  00:32

Hey, Larry.

Larry Kraft  00:33

Hey, Abby.

Abby Finis  00:35

So here we are. First episode of our podcast. 

Larry Kraft  00:38

Here we are, City Climate Corner.

Abby Finis  00:41

Right. So you reached out to me about eight months ago to do this podcast. What were you thinking?

Larry Kraft  00:48

I had gotten into podcasts and was listening to stuff about climate work and other things. And I looked around and didn't see anything on smaller cities. And as I'm now a city council member in a city of just under 50,000, I thought, wow, that's a gap. And there's enough challenges that a smaller city faces. And also, I think, some really great stuff going on, that I thought, is there an opportunity to do something here. And so I chatted with you about it and you agreed?

Abby Finis  01:22

Yeah, I mean, there certainly could be some more resources focused on smaller and midsize cities. Because, you know, as we pointed out in the intro, they're really critical to helping to meet state and national climate goals.

Larry Kraft  01:36

And one of the things that always sort of surprises me is even just at a population level, you think of the biggest cities must have the majority of the population in the country. But actually, if you get past that, the majority of the population is in the smaller cities and suburbs and things like that. So it's a critical area.

Abby Finis  01:55

What can listeners expect to hear over the course of the season? 

Larry Kraft  01:59

Well, we're gonna examine individual cities. And we're gonna try to learn things from each city that we talk about, and not just learn about things that other cities can do like implementable ideas, but also, especially in the first few episodes, we want to look at what's the youth story there as well, because young people have played such a big part in the climate movement. So we'll try to talk to young people and understand what they're doing there and how they've either directly or indirectly impacted climate action.

Abby Finis  02:33

Yeah. And, as we will hear today, and we focus a bit more on what this means for the community benefits and for people. There's also a major focus on what does this mean for equity and justice? And how can climate solutions also be justice solutions? And so we'll hear from some folks   on that and try to thread it through each of our episodes as well.

Larry Kraft  02:59

Absolutely. I think that you hear, you know, we're in a climate crisis. But we're also in a racial equity crisis. And part of the job now for local governments is dealing with both, and they're both equally urgent and very intertwined. And I add on top of it, COVID. And you've got three crises that have to be dealt with simultaneously.

Abby Finis  03:20

Right. And so we can always, you know, face our challenges as though they are opportunities and come out stronger on the other side. Today, we're gonna kick off the season and talk to Dave Ribeiro of ACEEE, and he's gonna lay the groundwork on why small and midsize cities are important climate actors.

Larry Kraft  03:38


Abby Finis  03:39

Let's do it. 

Start of Interview - background on ACEEE and Cities Scorecard

Abby Finis  03:43

Today, we're here with Dave Ribeiro, Director of Local Policy at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy or ACEEE. Welcome, Dave. 

Dave Ribeiro  03:51

Hi, there. Good to be here. 

Abby Finis  03:52

Can you tell us a little bit about ACEEE and the work that you do there?

Dave Ribeiro  03:55

Yeah, ACEEE is a nonprofit based in Washington, DC. We've been around for 40 plus years now. And our goal is to advance energy efficiency across the US through a combination of policy, technical assistance, and convening. So, we have a number of policy teams working on the state level, the federal level, and the local, which is where I spend most of my time and then we have a bunch of research programs as well, that focus on really the nuts and bolts of energy efficiency.

Abby Finis  04:24

So one of your marquee projects, I think, has been the city scorecard that's been around for a few years, and there's a state one as well. Can you give us a little bit of background on that and how it came to be and how it's used?

Dave Ribeiro  04:36

Yeah, sure. Happy to do that. So the city scorecard predates my time at ACEEE, so I can't talk about all the ways it was originated. It was a former colleague of mine, Eric Mackres, who's over at the World Resources Institute, who started the first edition. It's a report we've doing since 2013. The reason we started doing it, you know, we had heard these anecdotes, we knew cities were doing good things, but there wasn't a comprehensive way to look at their efforts and figure out one, you know, are there leaders? If there are leaders - who are they? And what cities need the most room for improvement? And secondly, is there a way to come up with a report that by scoring them in a certain way provides the beginnings of a roadmap so that cities can see their score and not only understand where they fall, but have an idea of what they could do to improve? And we've been doing it every other year, since 2013, though, last year - well, now it's 2021 - but in 2019, we started doing it annually. So we've had five published editions so far.

Abby Finis  05:40

Great. And can you tell us a little bit more about the cities that are included in the scorecard.

Dave Ribeiro  05:46

Yeah, so we focus on large cities. So we look at the 100 largest Metro regions in the US. And then we focus generally on the largest city within that Metro region. There are some cases where we'll take two cities per Metro region. So you know, in the Bay Area, we include San Francisco and Oakland, for example. And in New York, we include New York City and Newark, New Jersey. But by and large, we focus on those central cities of the largest Metro regions, so that we have geographic diversity, and we're not just focusing on a bunch of large cities in California, Texas, and a few other places.

Abby Finis  06:24

Sure, that makes sense. Have you seen kind of consistency in the top cities?

Dave Ribeiro  06:30

Yes, yes, there's been a fair amount of consistency, you know, we have increased the number of cities in the report, which skews things a little bit. So when the first report came out in 2013, it had 34 cities. So it was a small sample size. In 2015, we increased it to 50. And then, the last edition was when it went up to 100 cities. Throughout that entire time, though, there's only been 13 or 14 cities who have been in the top 10. So it's been a lot of the same leaders year after year, and sort of switching places within the top 10. So it's a bit of a horse race there. But once you get past those top, like 13, 14 cities, you know, there hasn't been other cities have broken the top 10. 

Abby Finis  07:14

Interesting. I want to throw in a little bit of a plug, but you also have a category of most improved city, do you see a dark horse coming in that could break that top 10 in the coming years?

Dave Ribeiro  07:25

I hope so. But some of them still have a ways to go. So last year, the two most improved cities, and I'll say the other was the 2020 city scorecard, the two most improved cities were St. Louis and St. Paul. So they, improved by something like 10 to 15 points each, I'd have to look. But they're still in the mid 20s or so. Or St. Paul, I think is a little higher. So they're between 15 and 25 in the rankings, put it that way. So if they continue to improve at the clip they've been improving, they got a shot to get up there, but I just know, historically, it's very difficult to to get into the top 10, top 12. So, you know, hopefully that will happen. But it takes concerted effort over you know, quite a few years, 

Abby Finis  08:12

For sure. I just wanted to root for the hometown city.


Smaller Cities Scorecard

Larry Kraft  08:18

So what was the impetus for using the scorecard on smaller cities? And why did you want to do that to focus on smaller cities?

Dave Ribeiro  08:27

Yeah, so whenever we put out the city scorecard, we've also put out a corresponding tool called the self scoring tool, obvious what its goal is.  We only have the bandwidth to do a certain amount of cities. And we always wish we could do more. But you know there's only so many hours in the day. So when we got to 100 cities, we knew that's where it was going to end. We just couldn't do a sustainable report more than 100 cities. But we wanted to have this tool available for any community who wanted to score itself because at the end of the day, the methodology of a city scorecard tries to focus on best practice policies that any community can pursue. There were some things where based on state legislation, maybe some cities can't pursue but, by and large, of the 100 points in the report, it's focused on things that people can take steps on. 

And so we had always had that tool available. We made it so that any city could download it and use it, but we hadn't used it in a concerted way to really get a feel for how are some smaller cities doing? How does the methodology really apply? And can the lessons learned from a scoring exercise in smaller cities be helpful to other smaller cities? It was always just a question that was out there. So, you know, an opportunity came along through this work with the Sustainable States Network and some other state programs, where we could apply it to 30 smaller communities. And we were happy to be able to do that. And finally answer that question of whether it's helpful for small cities.

Larry Kraft  10:08

Can we get a short background on the rating scheme? I mean, what are the things that go into a rating? I saw that the numbers for the larger cities are a little bit different than the smaller cities.

Dave Ribeiro  10:25

The City Scorecard has over 50 metrics that try to assess cities' energy efficiency, renewable energy efforts, as well as their efforts to embed equity in program development and program planning. So the metrics, there's 50 metrics, trying to assess those three topics are categorized into five areas, local government operations, buildings, policies, transportation policies, community initiatives, and utilities. So to walk just quickly through those categories. 

Within the local government operation section, we look at efforts that cities are taking to make their their own buildings - local government have built buildings - more efficient, their fleet, those sorts of things. When it comes to building policies, areas, we're looking at what policies or programs are being run for private buildings, are there good building codes in place, for example? Are there efforts to or are their programs that are trying to increase the efficiency of large buildings or requirements? That sort of thing. 

We have the section on transportation policy, which captures city efforts to reduce vehicle miles traveled within their city by goal-setting or encouraging compact communities and a number of other metrics. 

Community-wide initiatives are sort of cross-cutting. So we look at cities goals, but we also look at things like urban heat island mitigation, equity, program planning, and then we have one small area focused on energy and water utilities where we focus a lot on not what the city is doing, but what the energy utility or the water utility -- if it's not owned by the city itself -- are doing in terms of providing efficiency services to to the community. 

So I know that was a long explanation. But there's those 50 metrics that try to capture all of that information. The different categories, a city would get a numerical score. Every policy area has its own denominator. Then we just add up the points along those five categories to get your total score, and we rank them. So that's it in a nutshell, the one thing I'll say is for the Community Energy Challenge, which is the name of the initiative to score smaller cities, we removed the transportation scoring aspect of the scorecard. And the reason we did that, that category, more so than the others was a little more geared towards larger communities having like a large focus on, say, transit systems. And so we didn't know if it would apply as well to smaller cities. So we just decided to put that aside and focus on the the four other policy areas I was talking about.

Scorecard Results

Larry Kraft  13:06

Got it. When these results came back from the smaller cities, the Community Energy Challenge. Was there anything in the results that surprised you?

Dave Ribeiro  13:17

Not really, and I'll say that, because I didn't know what to expect. So it was hard to be surprised when I didn't really have an expectation of what I was going to get. Like I was saying before, this was our first time really looking at small city efforts. So we just frankly, didn't know what was out there. And so I'll say I was encouraged with what came back. Because one of the things we did find is it doesn't seem like population or city size, I should say, is linked to scores. In our assessment - and I'll say this, most of these that participated, they ranged from about 15,000 folks to a little over 100,000, maybe 110,000 in the largest of the cities. And it was not the case that the largest cities were clustered towards the top of the scores and the smaller towards the bottom one it was a mix and the smallest city 15 or 16,000, folks - Red Wing, they came in the top 10. So it was encouraging to see that cities of all sizes can can take steps on climate action.

Larry Kraft  14:23

Love it. I noticed my city, St. Louis Park, little plug, came in up there at number three.

Dave Ribeiro  14:30

Yes. Another example of how cities all over can lead.

Abby Finis  14:35

There's a myth out there that Midwesterners are humble. We're definitely anything but.

Dave Ribeiro  14:43

You can have pride, you know, that's good.

Small vs Large Cities observations

Abby Finis  14:45

Did you notice any similarities or differences between these small cities that were scored and the larger cities scorecard that you do.

Dave Ribeiro  14:55

There were some. I mean, like I was saying, you know, we didn't find that population really factored into scoring results. So it wasn't as simple as looking at the smaller cities was really different than the performance of large cities in some way. But in terms of similarities, we found that some of the same areas for improvement for small cities are the same ones for large cities. So one of the things that stood out from our scoring was that the cities in the Community Energy Challenge, the smaller cities have quite a ways to go in terms of efforts to increase efficiency in existing buildings. 

There weren't many policies or efforts that the 30 cities were undertaking. The cities, that did get points, there tended to be getting points or because of state policy, like a benchmarking requirement statewide, something like that. There were a couple of exceptions to that, but by and large, that was an area for improvement. And that's the same thing we see in large cities. In large cities, you have some very innovative efforts in a handful of cities, and you have benchmarking policies that have really proliferated. And that's been encouraging. But in terms of like cutting edge efforts to reduce energy use in buildings, that that's still an area that across any size cities seems to be a need. The other thing I'll say is that it, it seems like the smaller cities, and this is, I don't have data to back this part up. So it's really just a thought. The smaller cities that did well, sometimes it was that they had a flagship effort, or a couple things that really earned them a lot of points. Whereas having a broad portfolio of different programs, we didn't quite see as much. So in some of the larger cities, and some of the leading cities, which I suspect have larger staffs, and, you know, just the ability to run more programs, you see more varied programs. And again, that might be because, uh, you know, just the amount of staff that's that's the data point, I don't have. But that would be, that would be one difference.


Areas for growth and improvement

Abby Finis  17:03

Yeah, that's really interesting. And I think it's something that we see a lot and thinking about how we can provide additional capacity to those cities that don't have it and push them. What are some of those areas beyond benchmarking that cities can have room to grow in?

Dave Ribeiro  17:20

Yeah, well, the first one, and this won't come as a surprise. But, you know, efforts to integrate equity into programs, into clean energy programs. And again, this is something that cuts across large and small cities. And this isn't unexpected, because I feel equity has been something that maybe over the last five years has become more of a focus, and it takes time for that to actually happen and for models to come out. But, you know, in terms of scoring across the cities, you know, we didn't find many efforts to integrate an equitable planning process into climate action planning, for example. So that's, that's one area. 

Another one would be city utility partnerships. And this is a tricky one, depending on who your utility is, and I'll leave it there. But we didn't see many city utility partnerships. So that's a potential area for improvement, just to be able to, you know, make sure that cities are leveraging the energy efficiency programs that are out there, for example, or working together to increase renewable energy. You know, those sorts of things. 

And then the last one was related to goal setting. So greenhouse gas emissions goals, cities, the smaller cities who have the goals didn't seem to have robust ways to track progress towards those goals. And I know, that's just a challenge for smaller cities, frankly. But that's another area for improvement.

Abby Finis  18:53

Did you see any areas where smaller cities might have advantages over larger cities?

Dave Ribeiro  19:00

Not really - in terms of areas where they did well, like the local government operation section of the report seem to be an area where cities did pretty well. For example, converting outdoor lighting to LEDs, as an example. They also did well, in the community-wide section when it came to encouraging distributed energy resources, community solar, on-site, that sort of thing. But there are quite a few in the large city scorecard that also do well. So, there wasn't something that like jumped off right off the bat in terms of the debt and advantages for smaller cities, but like, frankly, it's it's not something that I did analysis for that if I really looked into the numbers, I might be able to figure it out. So there might be something hiding there that I don't know about yet.


Can small cities have an impact?

Larry Kraft  19:56

Having seen all this, what's your view on climate action at this scale of city size? Is it important? Can it have an impact?

Dave Ribeiro  20:05

Absolutely. Yeah. You know, like I said, I went into this without many expectations, and not really knowing what smaller cities had been doing. And we found that smaller cities were doing quite a lot. And a way to think about that, I compared what the 30 smaller cities were doing to the largest cities in terms of just the median score. So in the methodology that we used here aligns with the 2019 city scorecard. And I say that because the methodology always changes from year to year in the city scorecard. So, I looked at the the median score in the 2019 city scorecard, and it was in the mid 20s, for a city. And for the 30 cities in the community energy challenge, it wasn't that far behind. It was either in the high teens or the low 20s. So, you know, it tells me that the smaller cities are pretty close in terms of level of ambition to larger cities. 

So I think there's certainly an opportunity for cities to continue to do more, to continue to lead, and to just reap the benefits from from climate action, because I think it's not only about can cities take these actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I think it's about can, smaller cities take advantage of all of the benefits that come along with climate action, from just growing stronger and more prosperous, resilient communities. And I think there's a bunch of ways to look at that. If you are increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy, you're improving your economy, because you're creating jobs, and you're keeping more money within your community. That helps everyone, all businesses. You are helping to reduce energy burdens. You're making your community healthier, by increasing active transportation, like biking and reducing pollutants. So those are, those are benefits that regardless of what size your city is, they're important things to really take a hold of. So I think, regardless of city size, you know, it matters. So small cities, certainly can, can do this work and benefit from it.

Larry Kraft  22:17

What you're saying really resonates with me. So often, in climate action work, the first thing you hear about is what it might cost. But the benefits that come from these investments that are being made in in climate action in cities, certainly is in terms of emissions reductions, but you're absolutely right. There's huge other benefits that you get in terms of quality of life, financial, and others and just building community, right? But with the community that's easier to walk and bike and get around, just changes the way people interact with each other.

Dave Ribeiro  22:54

Yeah, absolutely. That's why, you know, increasingly, I think about climate action less in terms of tons of GHGs reduced to making more prosperous, healthy communities. That's what I think about. And that's where I think the opportunity lies. Because if that's the approach you take, and you get away from, "what's the most cost effective, ton reduced," or something like that? It just connects with people better and it just makes the argument a lot more valuable to folks.

Larry Kraft  23:31

Well, thanks, Dave. This was great.

Abby Finis  23:33

Yeah, thank you.

Dave Ribeiro  23:35

Thanks for having me on.

Abby and Larry - episode debrief

Abby Finis  23:39

We just spoke with Dave Ribeiro of ACEEE. What do you think about that, Larry?

Larry Kraft  23:43

Really interesting, and especially the point that he made that smaller cities are pretty close to larger cities on actions and things that they're taking.

Abby Finis  23:56

We didn't get into too many details about what went into the analysis of the cities, but, you know, he mentioned that transportation was taken out for smaller cities. So does that impact their score on the whole against larger cities? Or was that accounted for? Those are the kind of like nerdy things that you want to get into, but you gotta save time.

Larry Kraft  24:17

Yeah, and you know, transportation is an interesting one, because there is I think there's a way of evaluating it for a smaller city, but maybe in a different way than for a larger city because he's right, you won't have the same kind of transit control or discussion, but still, you can do a lot in terms of biking, walking, and non-auto infrastructure.

Abby Finis  24:38

Yeah, definitely. And I think is, as technologies change, and we see electric bikes growing in popularity, there's more possibilities around that for smaller communities. There's also opportunities potentially around autonomous vehicles for communities and those kind of what if we have an intown, circulator, and different opportunities to explore I think for those smaller communities. There's also smaller communities that are more regional economic centers that are that are isolated to themselves. And then there's smaller communities that are suburban communities, and they are connected to that larger system. So I think there's a number of avenues you can explore there.

Larry Kraft  25:24

I think what it does point out is that there is just a really rich set of examples of things that smaller cities are doing. And that can have a real impact both on themselves and being an example for others. So I think it sets up some of the interviews we're going to be doing.

Abby Finis  25:45

Absolutely. I liked his point at the end about, you know, making this more about the benefits and the focus on the people who live in the communities rather than just thinking about what is the cost-effectiveness of reducing a ton of carbon emissions?

Larry Kraft  26:00


Discussion of Texas Energy Crisis

Larry Kraft  26:03

We finished recording this episode. And just before we published it the energy crisis happened in Texas. It's another reason, another example, of why we're doing this. We thought it'd be a good idea to comment on it. So Abby, what are your thoughts?

Abby Finis  26:21

Texas experienced the worst case scenario for power outages and, and a situation that they weren't prepared for, for a number of reasons. The biggest reason being, you know, Texas doesn't expect to get such cold temperatures. But as we are moving deeper into this climate crisis, those are the kinds of events that we have to prepare for,    extreme weather events on both ends, whether it's, you know, extreme heat or storms that occur in the summertime or extreme cold in places where it's not supposed to be cold. This situation, this crisis that happened down in Texas is a reminder of why we're doing this and why we need to continue to accelerate climate action, both mitigation and resilience at all levels, including cities, including all sizes of cities, not just the largest cities, because we need to be prepared for these kinds of events. And we need to do all that we can to minimize the impact that we'll see in the future.

Larry Kraft  27:32

You know, maybe 5 or 10 years ago, people or a city could say, well, I don't quite know how climate change is impacting me. But I think now that's not the case for pretty much anywhere. Whether it's flooding or droughts, or now I know someone that refers to this as global weirding as opposed to global warming, right? Where this changes in, in temperatures in the Arctic are just messing with normal weather patterns. So you get these 500 year floods, or maybe it's 100 year freezes, that the infrastructure is just not prepared for.

Abby Finis  28:18

Absolutely, and the images just, you know, a reflection of what we've taken in and just the past, not even a year, in this country alone. There's other major hazards happening all over the world. But people have posted images from California wildfires this summer to the Texas Deep Freeze, and how people are coping with that. And we absorb that and we carry on and we move on to the next day. Because you know, we are inherently resilient. But we can be much more resilient when we have those systems in place to support us. And I think that in all of these scenarios, we're also seeing the exposure of the inequities that exist in our systems and in our policies. And those who have the least impact bear the greatest brunt of many of these disasters, and need to be front and center in developing solutions for us.

Larry Kraft  29:18

Absolutely. One of the things that gave me hope over the course of the past several months. And now I'm waiting to see what happens with it is the fact that candidate Biden made a part of his campaign that he was going to invest a substantial amount in clean energy and infrastructure to simultaneously strengthen our infrastructure, but also to get us down the path of climate action. And 40% of that investment, he had planned $2 trillion over four years, was going to be targeted towards disadvantaged communities.

Abby Finis  30:03

Yeah. And I think that investment certainly needs to come with a healthy dose of inclusive engagement so that those decisions are being made with the people who are impacted and not for the people who are being impacted. So as good Midwesterners who, we're accustomed to winter were accustomed to these kind of temperatures. We have you in our thoughts, and we're hoping that you are doing all right, and that you build resilience and we can all work together toward a more sustainable future.

Abby Finis  30:41

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from this episode's guests on our webpage. If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at

Larry Kraft  30:58

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me Larry Kraft, edited by me music by... 

Abby Finis  31:05

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard

Larry Kraft  31:07

Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.