Last April, a candid moment on the campaign trail thrust Atlanta into the vanguard of an eco-revolution. During a Republican forum at a Buckhead restaurant, Kwanza Hall, then an Atlanta city councilman and mayoral candidate, said he questioned whether all the talk about melting ice caps and stranded polar bears was media overkill. When news reporters asked him for an explanation, Hall claimed that he misspoke—and simultaneously announced plans to introduce legislation committing the city to an ambitious goal: powering all city buildings, including the world’s busiest airport, with nothing but clean energy by 2025, followed by every structure within city limits a decade later. Call it a moment of clarity—or saving face. Regardless, Hall’s council colleagues and mayor Kasim Reed ultimately agreed, and overnight, Atlanta became a trailblazer among southeastern cities.
The pledge made for positive headlines, but can a growing urban center of Atlanta’s size really part ways with fossil fuels in the next 17 years? Yes, experts say. But it won’t be easy.
As of December, Atlanta was one of 50 U.S. cities that had independently made this commitment. A handful of smaller cities—including Burlington, Vermont, and a largely wind-powered town outside Austin—have achieved the goal already. But much of our region relies on some 200 coal-fired power plants—the moniker “Dirty South” applies to more than just our music. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, six states in the Southeast would form the world’s seventh-largest carbon emitter if they were a sovereign nation.
However, some coal- and oil-burning units at plants operated by Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility and the sole electricity provider for metro Atlanta, have closed or are in the process of shutting down; others, such as Plant Yates near Newnan, are now burning natural gas. The utility has halved its reliance on coal power in the past five years, from about 60 to 30 percent.
Those improvements, plus cleaner gasoline and more efficient modern vehicles, helped the metro area reach the EPA’s new ozone standards for the first time in 2017. Last year, we had the fewest ozone-risk days since the American Lung Association began counting 18 years ago.
Ted Terry, Sierra Club Georgia Chapter’s director, praises Reed’s administration for pushing initiatives such as the Better Buildings Challenge, a federal program that has spurred nearly 600 Atlanta commercial property owners to assess where their buildings are wasting electricity and water and install features such as insulated windows and low-flow fixtures. The ongoing initiative has kept an estimated 115,000-plus metric tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air. In addition, all new city buildings must meet LEED environmental standards. And Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has made improvements such as installing LED runway lights that burn 50 percent less electricity than their incandescent predecessors. Such efficiencies and new solar projects could help Atlanta get about halfway to its goal, says Stephanie Stuckey, the city official who oversees sustainability initiatives.
On the other hand, the city is powered by only 6 percent renewables: roughly 3 percent solar and the rest through hydro from Georgia Power’s dam at Lake Sinclair near Milledgeville. Georgia’s hilly, forested topography isn’t conducive to windmills and no new dams are in the works. Georgia Power is adding more solar to its portfolio. But city officials argue the utility’s practice of “buying back” electricity generated by home rooftop panels for less than retail value isn’t enough of an incentive.
Terry believes that the city’s commitment will encourage innovation. Wind and wave technologies could be developed along the Georgia Coast. The city’s Solarize Atlanta program helps property owners team up to buy photovoltaic panels and reduce installation costs. And at the R.M. Clayton Water Reclamation Center in northwest Atlanta, tiny turbines are spun by cleaned sewer water as it whooshes toward the Chattahoochee River. The process makes the plant more energy efficient—and resistant to disasters, natural or man-made. “As long as people in Atlanta are taking showers and brushing their teeth and flushing toilets,” says Emily Morris, CEO of Emrgy, the local startup pioneering this technology, “we can utilize those existing activities to create clean power.”
But there is only so much clean energy the city can capture or create on its own without a substantial capital investment. Thirty to forty percent, at least according to current projections, could come from energy credits purchased through Georgia Power, such as wind power from Oklahoma and the Midwest.
Marilyn Brown, a sustainability professor at Georgia Tech and former climate researcher, says technological advancements should definitely help Atlanta achieve its 2035 goal, but cleanly powering all city operations within seven years would be “ahead of its time.” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has promised to keep pushing the initiative, calling upon all Atlantans to help accomplish the goal.
Sierra Club’s Terry is also bullish on Atlanta’s chances of hitting its mark—plans he calls “audacious” but necessary. “The future is in clean energy; that’s where the jobs and the investments are going,” Terry says. Atlanta was the cradle of the civil rights movement, he argues. Why not launch the green revolution?
This article appears in our April 2018 issue.