Atlanta has arguably been the capital of the American South for decades, from its moniker as “The City Too Busy To Hate” during the civil rights era to its hosting of the Olympic Gamess a generation ago. Now, according to the Sierra Club, Atlanta is now the largest southern city to commit to a future of 100 percent renewables.
On Monday, Atlanta’s city council unanimously passed a resolution that aims to run the city entirely on clean energy by 2035.
The one-page manifesto is short on specifics, but it behooves Atlanta to launch a series of steps. First, the council instructs the city’s sustainability office to draft a plan for the transition, which is to be publicly released by January 2018. If the city succeeds with these goals, it could power its own operations entirely with clean energy sources by 2025; citywide, renewables will be sole source of power a decade later.
This blueprint acknowledges that almost a quarter of the city’s population lives in poverty, and claims that all citizens will have a stake in Atlanta’s energy transformation.
To that end, Atlanta's government plans to explore programs that encourage companies to hire locally. The city is also looking to help workers retrain and find employment in new sectors if their jobs disappear due to a decrease in fossil fuel consumption.
One could also say that this resolution offers an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. In addition to low-hanging fruit such as weatherization and the installation of newer lighting, Atlanta will explore a range of other options to meet this 100 percent target, including district heating, microgrids and solar-powered hot water heaters.
These goals are a huge jump from the city’s earlier efforts to improve its renewable power capacity while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. In its most recent sustainability report, Atlanta said its sustainability directives included a goal to source 10 percent of its power from renewables by 2020, while slashing its total emissions by 20 percent. At the end of 2016, Atlanta had already accelerated its solar capacity by installing 28 new systems, half of which are in low-income neighborhoods.
The big question, of course, is how local lawmakers plan to pay for all of this.
The city’s Office of Sustainability will be able to request the funds necessary in order to meet the renewables target, but it may also explore private-public partnerships. Between the city’s business community and universities, as well as its participation in a national “smart cities” program, Atlanta’s civic leadership should be able to develop the capacity to meet this ambitious goal – but 15 years can run by fast.
Atlanta joins a short but growing list of U.S. cities that have pledged to become powered entirely by clean energy in the next 15 to 20 years. This roster includes small wealthy towns such as Aspen, Colorado, and East Hampton, New York, along with larger California cities including San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose. Two years ago, Burlington, Vermont, claimed to have become the first city to run entirely on renewables.
With this move, Atlanta is the first city in the southeastern U.S. to start the switch to 100 percent renewables. While its politics trend more left than the rest of Georgia, renewables are gaining momentum across the entire state. According to a Department of Energy survey, the clean-energy sector now employs over 5,000 people across all of Georgia – more than twice the amount of jobs in the fossil fuel power generation sector.
Finally, what was once thought an unlikely alliance between the Sierra Club and Tea Party groups nudged the state’s legislature to pass a law that made it less cumbersome for residents and business to install solar systems. The local utility, Georgia Power, promised to add 525 megawatts of wind and solar power by 2020; pressure from the Sierra Club convinced the state’s utility commission to more than triple that goal to 1,600 MW.
Atlanta is often described as the capital of the “New South.” As the city of 456,000 promises to eschew coal and natural gas, that nickname will take on a new meaning. It has much to prove, however; the NGO Environment America estimated that Atlanta ranks 40th in total solar capacity among the country’s 50 largest cities.
Image credit: Rick Austin/Flickr