Using Data to Create Urgency for Clean Energy

USGBC Georgia hosted an informative evening lecture about the 100% clean energy goal for the City of Atlanta. To clarify, clean energy is not equivalent to renewable energy. Clean energy includes energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings, renewable energy generation, and purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECs). Imagine it like a carbon cap and trade strategy. Regardless of how we get there, aiming for clean energy is not just for tree huggers and LEED certification. The cost of using dirty energy in Atlanta affects all residents to the sum of $200 Million in health impacts from poor air quality.


Mayor’s Office of Resilience

So where did this big idea come from? The Mayor’s Office of Resilience, previously known as the Office of Sustainability is managing the plan. USGBC members heard about 100$ clean energy from the source, Cicely Garrett, Deputy Chief Resilience Officer, City of Atlanta, Mayor’s Office of Resilience. The event started with a whirlwind update about the Resilient Atlanta, Actions to Build an Equitable Future report, which was published to the public in November 2017.


Everyone Wins with Clean Energy

Dr. Matt Cox, CEO & Co-Founder, The Greenlink Group followed up Ms. Garrett’s presentation by introducing the event’s theme, Envisioning Solutions Through the Lens of Big Data. Dr. Cox presented his computer model called ATHENIA, which shows potential human-centered benefits of implementing 100% clean energy.

ATHENIA is machine learning artificial intelligence that estimates the carbon footprint of a city based on electric generation demand and supply inputs. The sophisticated audience was wowed by figures like $500 Million in public health savings, and creating 28,000 jobs. But to explain the next steps on how to get there, we first need to look back at the path which brought us to today.


100 Resilient Cities

One brief year ago in 2016, Atlanta was invited to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation’s global initiative called 100 Resilient Cities. To support solutions answering the challenges of globalization, urbanization, and climate change, the foundation provides a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) salary for two years as well as private sector partnerships to achieve ambitious goals. The 100% clean energy aspiration is only one of numerous forward thinking outcomes of the resiliency plan.


4 Visions for a Resilient Atlanta

  • Preserve and Celebrate Who We Are
  • Enable all of Metro Atlanta to Prosper
  • Build our Future City Today
  • Design our Systems to Reflect our Values


Overall, the Resilient Atlanta plan includes dozens of ambitious initiatives to bolster the four pillars of the plan. 100% clean energy is the most notable one so far. An initial notable achievement of the initiative is that Atlanta completed her plan in a record ten months due to the impending Mayoral change over in 2018. The working group did their best to be inclusive of the diverse city, and over 7,000 individuals participated in 40 public engagement events to ensure the plan meets the public needs.


Atlanta’s Resilience Compared to the Nation

  • Fourth highest energy burden in the country with some zip codes as high as 9.6% of income spent on energy. National average is 2.7%
  • Third fastest heat island impact rise
  • First in tree species lost over past 40 years


Atlanta’s Electricity Profile

Currently, Atlanta receives electricity from an even balance of nuclear, coal, and natural gas. The projected path for business as usual shows nuclear growing and displacing coal. Reducing the amount of coal we burn for electricity improves air quality, but increasing nuclear generation also increases consumption of water, which is also growing as a rising resource concern. For those reasons, neither coal or nuclear are considered clean energy sources. Fortunately, there are two clean energy strategies that require no water consumption: solar power and efficiency upgrade. Regarding solar, Georgia Power is slowly adding more utility grade capacity, but at best, could only produce as much as 23% of electricity from solar by 2035.


Current Fuel Costs in Atlanta = $22B

  • $1.2 Billion on coal
  • $4.1 Billion on natural gas
  • $17 Billion on petrol


To put that $22 Billion total in perspective, the entire state budget is $25 Billion! These gigantic figures may be challenging to visualize, but can be helpful because big data returns big results.


Analysis of 2016 data from the Atlanta Better Building Challenge ( demonstrates a measureable public health benefit from Atlanta’s energy reductions related to the BBC. And the biggest winners are residents of Jefferson, Alabama. If you are wondering how Atlanta’s energy reductions improve the health of people in Alabama, you have to follow the pipeline. Georgia Power purchases 25% of it’s peak demand electricity from a coal plant in Jefferson, Alabama. So not only do we save money by reducing our peak demands, we also protect the health of our neighbors.


Why Clean Energy?

Dr. Cox started his presentation by inviting the room to introduce themselves and share why clean energy matters to them. The responses, shown in this word map, were passionate and bold.

You Can Design the Plan

Next, the most important take-away for the evening is that 100% Clean Energy is an aspiration; not an ordinance. To put it another way, 100% Clean Energy is a goal; not a law. It is also not exclusively 100% renewable energy. So how do we get there? The plan is being drafted as we speak based on community input meetings. The final plan will be submitted to the city council by the end of January 2018.


Two Phase Roll Out

Another important take-away is the two stages of deployment. The first wave goal for 100% clean energy encompases all city owned property, the airport, and watershed management by 2025. Those three entities make up 7% of all electricity use in the city. Then, all other privately owned buildings and residences aim to meet 100% clean energy by 2035.  


Step 1: Create Jobs

Remember, clean energy starts with energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings to lower electric demand. This looks like adding attic and crawlspace insulation, replacing light bulbs and ballasts, upgrading appliances to energy star, and sealing cracks and leaks that cause infiltration. If we can max out our efficiency upgrades, they account for 31% of baseline emissions. Whereas, our maximum opportunity for rooftop solar only accounts for 10% of baseline emissions, and utility scale solar could cover up to 17% of baseline emissions.


The efficiency upgrade phase of the plan embodies real trickle down economics because it creates jobs for communities where the energy is consumed. For every $1 Million dollars invested in energy efficiency savings, seven jobs are created. Moreover, every $1 Million dollars invested in the local economy creates 15 jobs. Then, households can use their savings from lower utility bills to further stimulate the local economy. This positive feedback loop continues to makes returns on initial investments long after they are paid off. In the end, we all win because air quality is improved across the entire southeast region by lowering peak demand events at

coal fired power plants.

Step 2: Invest in Renewable Energy

Dr. Cox used his computer model to illustrate a few possible outcomes. We could do zero efficiency projects and zero rooftop solar, forcing 100% of carbon emissions to be covered by purchasing RECs. But that cost would be $100 Million. Keep in mind that implementation costs vary, and model iterations are limitless. No matter what combination of clean energy solutions are realized, 100% plan implementation requires 37% of emissions to be covered by RECs.


Remember, only 7% of energy is consumed by city owned infrastructure. For the plan to be successful, it requires buy in from private citizen and business owners. One projection demonstrated that at 50% plan implementation, the entire city gains:

  • $13 Billion total benefits
  • 15,000 new jobs created
  • Air Quality improvement equivalent to 5 months with no cars!


Imagine a Healthier Future

Clearly, 100% clean energy has massive ripple effects for every man, woman, and child who lives within Metro Atlanta. Throughout the event, Ms. Garrett and Dr. Cox repeatedly highlighted not only the environmental benefits, but also the public health benefits of clean energy. And we need every citizen’s’ participation to get there.


When it comes time to take action under the plan, consider an energy audit of your home and business to see how you can contribute to efficiency upgrades. Later, when greenspace and community solar proposals pop-up, show up to neighborhood meetings and voice your support. Finally, when asked to think outside the box, imagine micro grids trading electricity between neighbors. At the start of each new day, Atlanta’s energy resilience depends on our shared commitment and responsibility to protecting our brothers and sisters and our beloved city.