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Columbus Ohio's Energy Pivot in Face of Climate Change

June 21, 2022

[Photo courtesy of Sustainable Columbus]


A few years ago, the City of Columbus, Ohio, decided to take a good hard look at their energy grid — a labyrinth of cables and pipes powered primarily by coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. Like many municipalities across the country, a reliance on fossil fuels brought the climate crisis to their doorstep, and it became clear change was needed.


Between 1951 to 2021, average temperatures in Columbus warmed by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, the growing season extended 26 days, precipitation rose about 20 percent, and heavy rain events increased 42 percent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Punishing heat, poorer air quality, and more frequent and severe flooding harm local economies and the health and wellbeing of everyone. However, residents facing socio-economic hardship bear the heaviest burdens. The city pivoted.


In 2021, the city launched Clean Energy Columbus, an electric aggregation program procuring 100 percent renewable energy for residents and small businesses powered by all Ohio wind and solar by 2025. The program clusters customers to decrease costs, and includes a community grant that comes back to the city for reinvestment into sustainability and communities most vulnerable to climate change. Emissions are expected to decline by 1.4 million metric tons, or the equivalent of taking about 300,000 cars off the road, says its website.


“When starting the Clean Energy Columbus program, we wanted to know how we reinvest these funds into neighborhoods that are hit hardest by climate change,” said Erin Beck, Assistant Sustainability Officer, Sustainable Columbus, “With the help of our Aggregation Advisory Group, we knew we wanted to focus on residential energy efficiency and energy burden and analyzed specific area codes using the Greenlink Equity Map to identify our highest opportunity neighborhoods and which measures would be most effective.”


Opportunity neighborhoods, as they are referred to by the City of Columbus, are disadvantaged communities (typically low-income and Indigenous, Black, Latine, and other systemically oppressed communities) within the city who have frequently been left behind by previous policies. These neighborhoods include Linden, Franklinton, Hilltop, and Near East in addition to several others. The mapping tool, added Beck, helps cut the data, be most efficient, and target where we should be investing.


Not only was the City able to understand how to reduce energy burden in those areas through energy efficiency measures, it also helped make the case for additional funding for energy efficiency, along with help from IMPACT Community Action, a non-profit focused on eliminating poverty. Funding from the city support’s work by the non-profit to undertake energy efficiency measures in homes through expansion of weatherization programming, installing updated appliances, and the launch of Empowered! – a clean energy jobs program for young Columbus residents.


“Ideally, it makes residents' homes more comfortable to live in and reduces energy bills,” says Beck. “We have our Columbus Climate action plan with a goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, with a 20 percent residential energy efficiency reduction by 2030.


The two climate hazards impacting Columbus most are rising temperatures and increased precipitation. Making progress on climate change to reduce and adapt to these hazards through data informed efforts reduces the harmful health and economic impacts climate change is having on disadvantaged people. It increases the ability to support environmental justice.


That’s why the City is working to co-create with the community the Greenlink supported Equity Index. The Equity Index is an additional feature on the equity mapping tool that provides a grading system so governments and communities can rate progress on key indicators such as energy burden, asthma rates, affordability of housing, or other equity issues. Environmental justice and good data go hand in hand. Columbus is taking another step towards this brighter future.