Our Cleanest Cities and their Zero Carbon Progress

Our cleanest cities provide powerful lessons in how to transition to clean energy, while growing a city economy, and providing better services to citizens. All of these cities improved their renewable energy generation, energy-efficient buildings, government, equitable communities, and transportation. The success of these cities, and the ranking of all major U.S. cities is detailed by American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The highest ranking U.S. cities are these:

  1. Boston
  2. San Francisco
  3. Seattle
  4. Minneapolis
  5. Washington DC
  6. New York
  7. Los Angeles
  8. Denver
  9. Austin
  10. Portland

In the face of our climate crisis, most of these cities have ambitious plans to become carbon neutral with zero net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These cities plan to generate all electricity with renewables. At the same time that wind and solar power are being massively deployed, buildings and people are becoming more efficient, requiring less electricity.

Getting to 100 percent renewable electricity, however, does not cut even half of a city’s GHG emissions. Buildings typically use natural gas (methane) for heating, cooling, hot water, and cooking. Vehicles spew emissions by burning gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. To take advantage of renewable electricity, buildings and transportation will need to be all electric and efficient.

It is a pleasure to write about the top four cities since I formerly lived near Boston, I now live in San Francisco, I have conducted workshops in Seattle, and my wife was born in Minneapolis.

In these top cities, you find partnerships and coordination shared by city government, service providers, technology leaders, financial innovators, non-profits, and community organizations.


Boston outranked all other U.S. cities in the Scorecard. Boston plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. Boston buildings are far more energy efficient than most. The Massachusetts Stretch Energy Code mandates efficiency. Buildings greater than 50,000 square feet must report annually on energy use and efficiency progress, such as achieving LEED or Energy Star certification.

The city partners with Mass Save to fund training for builders, contractors, and inspectors.

Stroll the historic streets of Boston and you will see over 800 green buildings with LEED certification. All use efficient lighting, insulation, heating and cooling. Many are mixed use near transit. Some are unique, such as the Boston Public Market which showcases local sustainable food.

Since 67 percent of Massachusetts energy is from gas (methane), Boston is challenged to become carbon neutral. Offshore wind will play a major role. Looking at its success in Europe and nearby Rhode Island, Massachusetts has mandated offshore wind development; the 800 MW Vineyard Wind project is underway. The 84 turbines will be 14 miles offshore, not upsetting anyone’s views.

Utilities promote electricity and gas efficiency. Low-income and multifamily programs are promoted to help with low-cost and free LED light bulbs, thermostats, energy audits, and building insulation with financing. Renters, homeowners, and landlords can all apply for help. Boston Seniors Save Program helps lower income seniors replace old systems with efficient heating.

Boston outranks most cities in using electric and hybrid vehicles in its government fleet. To encourage citizens to switch to electric cars, all parking structures must equip five percent of spaces with EV charging, and have an added ten percent wired to be EV ready. The compact city of 48 square miles (of land) makes it easy to get everywhere by walking and using transit.

San Francisco

San Francisco was number two on the Scorecard and number one in transportation. San Francisco (SF) promotes 0-80-100-Roots Climate Action: zero waste by 2020, 80 percent of trips made sustainably by 2030, and 100 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030. Five thousand tech companies have driven growth in the SF Bay area, yet SF emissions are 30 percent less than in 1990.

Urban density helps. In equal square miles of land to Boston, most places in SF can be reached by walking, buses, and commuter rail. San Francisco is home to Uber, Lyft, and a variety of last-mile solution providers offering shuttles, ebike, and scooter sharing. SF fast-track approves mixed-use buildings near transit by establishing Priority Development Areas (PDA) where fewer development approvals are needed. Endless reviews, which stretched to eight years added cost and uncertainty to developments, are now streamlined to less than two years. To help address its crisis of expensive housing and homeless, no parking spaces are required. SF is a leading city in transportation mode shifting, rather than only driving.

San Francisco is likely to achieve its goal of 100 percent renewable energy within ten years. It has long promoted solar roofs and energy efficiency. Community choice aggregator (CCA) CleanPowerSF, make it easy for customers to elect electricity generation from 100 percent renewables. Major utility, PG&E, generates 40 percent of electricity from renewables. This September 2019, the SF Board of Supervisors approved breakthrough legislation: by 2022, large commercial buildings must use 100 percent renewables; by 2030, commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet must use 100 percent.


Seattle generates virtually all electricity with renewables thanks to its leading utility, carbon-neutral Seattle City Light, and thanks to having 8,000 solar buildings. Like many great cities, Seattle is leading, not waiting for the federal government, to deal with climate change. This August, the Seattle mayor and city council resolved to reduce GHG emissions 100 percent by 2030 with a Seattle Green New Deal.

Seattle City Light offers programs for low-income customers such as weatherization, refrigerator replacement, energy efficiency, and heat pump installation. Seattle City Light’s Multifamily Program offers property rebates on lighting, windows, and heating, ventilation and cooling updates (HVAC). In 2017, Seattle also formed the Environmental Justice Committee and encouraged those most impacted to have a voice in environmental planning.

Amazon, Seattle’s largest employer, announced plans to order 100,000 electric delivery trucks, making home delivery far lower in carbon emissions, than individuals driving to stores to pick-up goods. Amazon has committed to meet the Paris Agreement ten years early. It has over 50 solar rooftops, and is a major buyer of wind, solar, and other renewable power globally.

Seattle is home to non-profit the Bullitt Foundation whose president Denis Hayes states, “Tomorrow’s cities will consist of ‘living buildings’ inside vibrant, resilient neighborhoods all connected by super-efficient transportation links. Today’s living buildings, like the Bullitt Center, represent efforts to learn from nature how to exist comfortably and productively in a particular environment, making the least possible demand on resources.” The Bullitt Center helps organizations globally go beyond net zero. Its six-story headquarters building with integrated solar generates 60 percent more energy than it uses.

More about Sustainable Seattle.


Minneapolis jumped from the seventh to the fourth in the 2019 Scorecard. Minneapolis aspires to reduce GHG emissions 80 percent by 2050. New energy policies for existing buildings were key to Minneapolis jumping ahead of green cities like Washington DC and New York City. Also, energy use must be disclosed anytime a home is sold or apartment rented.

Xcel, the region’s largest utility, is moving away from coal, Minnesota’s largest source of electricity. Thirty percent of electricity now is generated by wind, hydro, and solar. Offshore wind on the Great Lakes has the potential to replace all coal power in Minnesota.

Minneapolis wants to address environmental justice with community-driven programs. An example is the Green Zones Initiative that includes giving voice to impacted communities, collecting data, planning, and funding. Priority issues include equity, displacement, air quality, brownfields and soil contamination, housing, green jobs, food access and greening. Members of the Northern and Southside Green Zones serve on advisory committees to the City Council.

Like all cities, the city needs to leverage its own funds. Using $10.6 million from the Affordable Housing Trust, the city attracted another $188 million in public and private funds to build 764 units of affordable multifamily rental housing.

The Report and Scorecard

It is not surprising that these cities scored at the top, because they excel in energy efficiency, transportation efficiency, and policies that promote efficiency. The report, after all, is sponsored by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. If you use different criteria for sustainability, the ranking order would differ, but the top 10 cities would likely be these. For anyone, the free Clean Cities report, at 282 pages, is a valuable reference. As cities innovate, we can learn from their successes and from policies and actions that did not work.

For this post, I included specifics about renewable energy not in the Clean Cities report. For these cities to reach their carbon neutral aspirations, they need both efficiency and renewables.

Efficiency is a key to shifting to renewables, improving buildings, mobility, and city living. It is easier to power a city that only needs one gigawatt, not ten. As RMI founder Amory Lovins taught us, the easiest watt to generate is the negawatt.

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