San Antonio

Taking a carbon-reduction cue from Europe's greenest city

Hamburg is the world's most beautiful city.

Or at least that's what my friend and former co-worker Alex Schwenkenberg would say followed by, "Take a look." And he'd pull up several shots of the Germanic cityscape.

Whatever its standings in the looks department, Hamburg, which has a population of about 1.8 million, does have an attribute few question. It stands as one of the world's greenest cities and offers an example of how other cities could improve their carbon footprint and livability.

Many U.S. cities have taken up the green challenge -- from California to Texas and up in Maine. It involves embracing arcane concepts like sustainability, energy efficiency and benchmarking greenhouse gas production. But solutions are relatively simple and noncontroversial.

Urban centers draw young people

Young people are the key. They're the next generation of real estate buyers and leaders, and they're increasingly looking to settle in urban centers rather than the suburbia preferred by their parents, says Michael Freedman, urban planner, futurist and founding partner at San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung + Sasaki. They want work close to home and socialize. They don't want to spend 10 percent to 20 percent of their waking hours stuck in traffic.

And they want greener vistas, cleaner air and a better overall environment.

Hamburg's leaders caught the sustainable bug sometime after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The city aims to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent in 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It's just wrapping up a year as Europe's greenest city, a designation that passes to Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. The European Green Capital award is issued by the European Commission as a means to get cities to inspire each other and share best practices, "while at the same time engaging in friendly competition."

Hamburg's CO2 savings

Energy-saving measures by 810 Hamburg businesses keep about 219,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually and the amount of energy expended on heating facilities "has dropped by 40 percent compared with 1990, causing a 45 percent reduction in CO2 emissions," according to city officials.

The city also is encouraging sustainable practices and development. Its HafenCity project, which has taken docks and old industrial land in the heart of Hamburg, epitomizes the trend. The massive redevelopment project is being engineered to transform 387 acres on the Elbe River into the most energy efficient residential, business and arts sector in the city. Design is compact yet has open space, encouraging living, working and entertainment.

Hamburg is hardly the Lone Ranger in green-minded redevelopment. Yet, others struggle. Oakland's been trying to jump start the project to revamp the 330-acre old Oakland Army Base for the past decade. Other cities, including Fresno, have been trying to redevelop their urban centers for decades. Some have been successful. Some haven't.

Sustainable makes cents

As the American Society of Landscape Architects says: "Urban development should be guided by a sustainable planning and management vision that promotes interconnected green space, a multi-modal transportation system, and mixed-use development."

In other words, people have to like it, and they'll like it better if it's sustainable.

Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute says going sustainable and green actually saves money and provides economic benefits. He calls it "synergistic bundling."

San Antonio's Mission Verde

San Antonio has embraced the concept, launching it's Mission Verde Sustainability Plan  to create jobs through green technology and infrastructure. "Saving energy saves money," the plan says. "Renewable energy creates economic self‐reliance."

It will be interesting to see how San Antonio does in the heart of Texas oil country. The city says it wants to set an example for others to follow.

In the next several months, my organization will be working with a handful of San Joaquin Valley cities to create energy action plans with realistic goals that actually save energy and money and reduce green house gases. The scale will be nowhere near Hamburg's or San Antonio's, but it may save some jobs just by replacing inefficient lighting and doing other more inventive stuff like adding solar and fuel cells to city buildings.

Guiding sustainable projects

A friend of mine at a small Valley community who has been working with me implementing energy efficiency stimulus grants for the past year or so just landed a job in the Bay Area. She'll be guiding a city's climate plan and making a difference.

A little here and there. Like European Commission says, Europe is an urban community and must make changes to become more sustainable. California and 49 other states must do the same.

And I believe it will happen. A little at a time.

Photo: Hamburg's Alster Lake

San Antonio seeks to corner clean energy

The mayor of San Antonio has been working to make his Texas city a center of clean energy for the past decade.

In fact, he wants to make it the new energy capital of the world. He tells National Public Radio that Houston is the bona fide energy capital.

This despite San Antonio's location in the center of the nation's oil patch. Or maybe because of that. After all, oil companies are calling themselves energy companies. And what is clean energy but a new way of creating power, just without burning anything.

Mayor Julián Castro announced on NPR's "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday" show that he's lined up an impressive array of companies that plan to make his city their corporate home. "One of them makes electric delivery trucks. One of them, in fact from North Carolina, makes home area networks that work with smart meters. And the other makes LED lighting," he said.

Castro's intent is job creation, and so far he's doing it. His strategy of going green for jobs is supported by a number of reports that have identified clean energy as a great tool to deliver economic development. Already "the clean economy employs more workers than the fossil fuel industry," says the Brookings Institution's "Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment" report.

The Brookings report also says the clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole.

So if San Antonio could do it, so could other regions, especially those with renewable resources.

In a past post, I mentioned Vegas as a prime spot to invest in clean energy. I figured, why not? The casinos spend huge amounts on attractions to elicit the wonder of their patrons. What's a little more for a cluster of solar panels?

Or better yet, why not cloak the towers with a new product from Israel startup SolarOr, which was shopping a newly designed photovoltaic panel, it calls BeeHive PV, at the Intersolar trade show in San Francisco recently.

The panels have a honeycomb design that lets in light and they are 14 percent efficient, said Ucilia Wang in a piece on, giving a building using them that totally custom look.

After listening to Castro, I thought: "Vegas is still a great showcase, but other cities likewise could make their mark." I live in Fresno, Calif., which ranks No. 5 on the list of U.S. cities with the clearest skies year-round with 194 days, according to a post by Liz Osborn at

With all that sun -- and yes it's hot and more like 320 days -- Fresno and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley is a great location for renewables. It's also got land, potential for biogas and other biofuels and wind up in the mountains near Tehachapi.

The economy in the Valley isn't the greatest. It's so bad in fact that it was one of six cities included in the Obama Administration's recent launch of Strong Cities, Strong Communities program designed to spark economic growth. Detroit and New Orleans also made the list.

Like Castro, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin considers job development high on her list of priorities. She's also savvy about going after results. "We are going to get to work,” she said in a story about the Strong Cities launch by Michael Kincheloe of the

Fresno, like many cities in the Valley, has embraced energy efficiency, and it's even adding solar to multiple city facilities.

But San Antonio's got a huge head start. Castro said the jobs brought to his city by the clean energy companies are a somewhat paltry 230 but are estimated to expand to between 800 and 1,000 jobs by 2015. And the utility serving San Antonio is looking to supply 400 megawatts of solar. It already has ties to 859 megawatts of wind in west Texas on the coast and in south Texas.

Not everybody thinks clean energy in San Antonio is the cat's meow. I stumbled across this post that said clean energy is still the new kid on the block. The piece, which appears on a site supported by the oil industry, explained that Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas deposit in south Texas "will prove to outweigh the hopes of any who wanted to brand the town as a renewable energy city."

The unnamed author does have a point. Existing industry is not to be overlooked or underestimated. It still packs a punch, and that's a good thing. As my friend from East Anchorage High who moved back to Texas to work in the oil industry always says, "Petroleum isn't going anywhere anytime soon."

I believe that. I also believe in the potential of clean energy. We're a society that will find innovative ways to consume all the available energy. And the cheaper it is, the more jobs we'll generate -- wherever we decide to do it.

Photo: The Alamo in San Antonio.