In late April, the Sierra Club announced a national initiative called Mayors for 100 Percent Clean Energy, a coalition of U.S. mayors who want to switch their communities to an all-renewable-energy diet. One of the mayors signing on as co-chair was Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina. A Democrat and the city’s first black mayor, Benjamin hopes to wean the state capital of 134,000 people off fossil fuels in the years to come.
Unlike the leaders of cities like Boulder, Santa Monica, Burlington, and many other towns known as sustainability trailblazers, Columbia is in a red state. (Benjamin jokes that he lives in “the F-150 community” because locals love their cars and trucks.) For now, his commitment is mostly symbolic—although mayoral endorsements can lead to city-council resolutions down the line, as happened in St. Petersburg, Florida, last year.
CityLab caught up with Benjamin to ask how’s he going to get Columbia from here to there.
What is your plan so far to move Columbia to 100-percent green energy?
The American South is just seeing such incredible growth and it’s providing us with an opportunity to really push for a paradigm shift in the way that we operate down here. We passed new [state] laws on solar a few years ago, and we’ve seen incredible growth in the alternative energy space. We just want to use this as an opportunity to push our community forward in a meaningful way.
[The state] started a program called Solarize SC, encouraging the liberal use of solar panels on homes and businesses, and we’ve seen our residents become excited about it. We’ve installed enough solar panels on homes and businesses across the city to generate about 8.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity over a guaranteed lifetime of 25 years. For our community, it has the effect of removing greenhouse gases of 13 million car miles.
We decided we’d become the first city in South Carolina to power all our city council meetings by renewable energy. We’ve converted 95 percent of our traffic lights to LEDs. Right now, we’re going through the process of becoming the first Energy Star city in South Carolina. We expect to have 60 compressed natural gas buses crisscrossing our city, and we think it sends a strong message that we’re taking efficiency and clean energy very seriously.
We have a lot to learn. We have a really talented group of nonprofits here in our community—the Sierra Club, Sustainable Midlands, and some others that we’ve worked closely with on other issues.
Two years ago, we had a 1,000-year flood event here that devastated our community. We lost 19 people, hundreds of roads damaged, 45 dams destroyed, billions of dollars of damage here across our state. It really underscored the importance of sustainable development. And I think it set the stage for us to have a much deeper dialogue than we’d had previously with our environmental communities.
Why pursue a city-level strategy, and how did politics at the state and federal levels affect that decision?
We learned over the last several years, as we saw great dysfunction in Washington, D.C., that cities were becoming that much more important in trying to help us achieve our national goals. Ninety percent of America’s gross domestic product is now being produced in cities and metropolitan economies. So I think it’s a natural transition as we see the effects of global warming, and we’re seeing these incredible weather events, and tornadoes, and forest fires. These [are] incredibly challenging and, depending on the community in which you live, existential threats that we face. Thoughtful leaders at the city level have to get involved to help solve some problems.
We’ve had some successes [in South Carolina]. For example, having the solar bill pass that created an environment where solar could survive here and be financially sustainable—that was a success a few years ago.
But it’s important that mayors underscore the urgency of the moment, and that we all be willing to aggressively confront climate change. It’s created hundreds of new jobs here in our city. Our citizens are much more engaged and understand their role in helping create a more vibrant and stronger world for our children.
What do you think are the biggest challenges you’ll have to overcome?
I tend to believe that most of the challenges we face are psychological. There are certain things that we occasionally dismiss as just not possible, but more and more, I’m seeing people buy into the idea that we can be at the center of good, progressive policies that also strengthen our local economy, strengthen our businesses, strengthen our citizens. So I think the real challenge is just laying out a bold plan that is measureable and achievable—and of course making sure that the way you develop this plan is incredibly inclusive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.