Costa Mesa leads the Golden State with a LEED for Cities Gold Certification

Nine EV Charge Ports at City Hall, including one DC Fast Charger

An edited version of this appears on the USGBC National website.

When LEED for Cities and Communities launched in 2019, Costa Mesa jumped at the chance to demonstrate its environmental leadership. The city measured its performance by leveraging data-driven benchmarking against national and global standards, provided by the LEED for Cities and Communities’ new rating system. Under the leadership of Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley and through a grant from Bank of America, it became the first city in California to achieve a LEED Gold certification.

The LEED for Cities and Communities rating system is revolutionizing the way cities and communities create responsible, sustainable, and specific plans for energy, water, waste, transportation, and many other factors that contribute to the quality of life. In Costa Mesa, these environmental goals led to the creation of a new Sustainability Manager role that oversaw the city’s progress on its energy efficiency goals.

California is facing risks related to climate change, rising sea levels, and wildfires. Cities and communities across the state are working to address climate change’s biggest driver, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Carbon emissions have significant consequences for our planet and human health. There is an urgent need for cities and communities to transition energy use away from gas and other fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Cities are increasingly interested in pursuing a clean energy future, setting ambitious goals to reduce air pollution from fossil fuel-based energy consumption.

However, the challenge lies in establishing metrics, prioritizing actions, and targeting scarce resources in the most cost-effective and strategic ways. Using the U.S. Department of Energy tool for State and Local Energy Data (SLED), Costa Mesa was able to benchmark its emissions against other cities. SLED provided the city with a high-level overview of its energy context and identified the most effective energy actions to achieve its clean energy goals.

To achieve this LEED certification, cities and communities must fulfill the prerequisites for power access, reliability, and resilience, as well as GHG emissions performance. They can also earn points for climate action, energy efficiency, renewable energy, low carbon economy, and grid harmonization.

In Costa Mesa, the city achieved 14 out of 14 possible points for GHG emissions per capita by fulfilling these prerequisites. Contributing factors for this score included Southern California Edison’s (SCE) cleaner electric grid compared to counterparts in other states, energy efficiency, and Costa Mesa’s compact urban land use pattern.

The city has a history of prioritizing energy efficiency. In December 2020, SCE replaced over 6,000 of the city’s streetlights with “dark sky compliant” LEDs that will result in significant energy and cost savings, improved safety, and reduced carbon footprint for the community. The city is now working with the Southern California Regional Energy Network (SoCal REN) and SCE to identify new energy efficiency projects and feasibility for solar photovoltaics on city-owned buildings.

The city also found that most of its emissions were coming from transportation, specifically gasoline-powered vehicles. For that reason, Costa Mesa also installed nine electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at its City Hall (eight Level 2 stations, and one DC fast) and is now looking to electrify its fleet and expand public charging.

Additionally, Costa Mesa achieved LEED Regional Priority points for fostering regional community resilience for wildfire hazards. Evolving climate conditions throughout California have made wildfires a year-round concern, making the prevention and mitigation of wildfires is a top priority. Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue partnered with the Metro Net Cities and the Orange County Fire Authority to provide public education, training, and volunteer opportunities to engage families and neighborhoods in community wildfire preparedness. Participants in the Citizen’s Fire Academy took part in a multi-faceted review of fire operations, including wildland operations. They learned how to retrofit their homes with ignition-resistive features and create necessary defensible spaces around homes, schools, and businesses to take action to reduce dry vegetation on properties.*

In conclusion, LEED for Cities and Communities provides a comprehensive way for jurisdictions to baseline where they are now and identify gaps. From there, they can prioritize areas for improvement and investment going forward. For Costa Mesa, it was its leadership to prioritize clean air and improve the quality of life that led them to a LEED for Cities and Communities Gold certification. Costa Mesa will be a strong mentor for other communities to benchmark emissions, recognize areas of focus, and identify where to invest in their future.


*Watch for USGBC-LA’s Wildfire Defense and Mitigation Mini-Conference in June.

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