Date of Award

Spring 2022

Degree Type




Director of Thesis

Dr. Conor Harrison

Second Reader

Dr. Shelley Welton


Combatting climate change requires a rapid transition to renewable sources for energy generation. In the United States, the electricity sector alone accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (28%), with about 63% of electricity generation derived from burning of fossil fuels (EPA, 2020). In order to lower greenhouse emissions from the energy sector, federal, state, and local policies must pave the way for renewable energy and energy efficiency innovations and policies. However, political action to address the effects and combat the causes of climate change have been limited due to political gridlock at the federal level. In addition, under neoliberalism, environmental and economic deregulation at the federal level has meant federal and state environmental policies have been limited, environmental goals are typically sidelined for economic priorities, and federal environmental laws are often ineffective even when passed (Heynen et al. 2008; Pretchel, 2020).

Federal deregulation has coincided with the devolution of political responsibility to states and local governments, a shift that has spurred attention to municipal efforts to combat climate change (Konisky, 2017). Cities have emerged as both critical actors and victims of climate change, as they are responsible for up to 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and are the home of the majority of the U.S. population and GDP (Bulkeley, 2010). Because of the threats of climate change, cities are being forced to contemplate how economic development and growth can occur while also addressing climate change stressors. Urban responses – such as setting goals for 100% clean energy – are often motivated by the growing dissatisfaction with lagging federal and state level action and are seen as a potential win-win scenario for climate change responses (Bulkeley 2010). As a result, over 170 cities have set goals for 100% clean energy.

While cities have emerged as key actors in the fight against climate change, a gap has emerged between declarations for 100% clean energy and the meaningful implementation of those goals (Hallegatte 2008). Cities are challenged by questions of equity and institutional capacity, as the increased development of city initiatives for energy efficiency and carbon control may reinforce structural energy poverty issues (Reames, 2016; Welton, 2017). Municipal governments also face challenges stemming from the multi-level governance of the energy sector in the U.S., which requires attention to local, state, regional and federal regulations (Bulkeley 2005). Therefore, in order to create a more equitable approach, multiple climate policies may be mainstreamed within affordable and justice-oriented urban planning practices (Viguié, 2012) while also developing more equitable initiatives that are controlled by actors and entities outside of their jurisdiction (Konisky, 2017).

In several Southeastern U.S. cities, mayors and city officials have passed resolutions and created city climate action plans in order to demonstrate leadership for a clean energy future. Two states, South Carolina and Virginia, have different approaches and unique sets of challenges and opportunities based on the structure of the state’s energy markets and state level governance. Virginia’s electricity mostly comes from Dominion Energy, a Richmond, Virginia based investor-owned utility. The state is part of a Regional Transmission Organization, PJM, that covers multiple states, and it is also subject to state-level clean energy requirements. While South Carolina is also served by Dominion, the state has no access to competitive energy markets and has limited clean energy legislation. In Columbia, SC, Dominion holds a monopoly franchise to provide the city’s electricity, but the utility is held less responsible for renewable energy innovations without state legislation direction.

The case of Columbia and Richmond provides an interesting contrast and demonstrates the multiple levels of utility governance. The home states differ in their responses to climate change in part because of political debates over the role of government to interfere with the fossil fuel industry. With Virginia’s state level legislation requiring clean energy sources, its cities may be better poised to set their own clean energy goals and emission reduction targets, particularly when compared to South Carolina’s delayed movement towards clean energy legislation.

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