Over 80 U.S. cities have now made commitments to reach 100 percent renewable energy with deadlines set in the 2030s or beyond. Though not all have considered which implementation strategies, including both policies and programs, will help them reach these goals.
With a population of close to 500,000 people, Atlanta is the economic center of one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas and the largest city in the state of Georgia. It is also a regional leader in the pursuit of clean energy, making its pledge in 2017 to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in both its municipal operations and citywide by 2035.
Since Atlanta made its formal commitment to renewable energy, the city’s Office of Resilience has worked with local partners to assess the city’s current energy outlook, engaged countless community members and groups, and developed a Clean Energy Atlanta Plan, detailing possible implementation strategies to reach its goal.
Megan O’Neil is the Energy Programs Manager for the City of Atlanta, where she coordinates energy programming and policy on behalf of the city. During the fourth episode in our multi-part Voices of 100% podcast series, O’Neil spoke with ILSR’s Energy Democracy director, John Farrell about Atlanta’s 100 percent commitment and which strategies it plans to implement to achieve its goal.
|You’re listening to an episode of Voices of 100%, a new multi-part series from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Local Energy Rules podcast where we’re speaking with local leaders from across the county to understand their reasons for pursuing a 100% renewable energy goal, how their city plans to achieve that goal and what these visionaries see as the future of local renewable energy?
|Across the country, more than 50 cities of all sizes have adopted ambitious goals to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable resources, but how do these cities plan to get there? This week, I talk with Megan O’Neil, Energy Programs Manager with the city of Atlanta, about that city’s 100% renewable energy commitment, why they’re taking the high road, and how they plan to get there.
Megan, welcome to the program.
|Hi. Thanks for having me.
|I just want to start off by asking you why has Atlanta made a commitment to 100% renewable energy and would you say it was more of a goal that was motivated by outside pressure, by constituents, or something developed internal to the city?
|I would say that this was both motivated internally and externally. Atlanta has a long track record of leading the south in sustainability and in energy efficiency policy and renewable energy adoption through our leadership by example as a municipality after the Trump Administration decided to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. We, just like many other cities in the US, felt the responsibility fell on us as a city and a major emitter of carbon emissions within our region, to do everything we could on our own to help advance the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. I think that’s where this target really emerged: our desire to help lead the way in the absence of federal guidance.
|According to their website, your electric utility, Georgia Power sold just 3 percent renewable energy in 2017. I’m curious, how have they reacted to the city’s proposed goal, and do you expect that they will be helpful in city of reaching that goal, or do you think they might be a hindrance?
|To achieve this goal of 100% clean energy by 2035, Georgia Power is an essential partner. They were one of the very first organizations we spoke with after our city council decided to commit the city to transition to 100% clean energy. We’ve spoken with them quite a bit, since. We have a long positive relationship with Georgia Power, and I expect that we’ll be able to work together to do what we can to advance this goal. As you are probably aware, Southern Company recently made a commitment to go to carbon neutral or zero emissions. As a Southern Company subsidiary, Georgia Power will be working in that direction moving forward as well.
|I actually haven’t heard of that goal from Southern Company. Is there a date for it or just is it a long term vision?
|I believe it’s 2050.
|Very cool. I was looking at an InsideClimate News article, that was in June, suggesting the city was really wanting to make a genuine commitment to how to reach this 100% goal by developing local renewable resources. It laid out three different paths that city leaders, and I’m assuming you’re a part of this, are considering. The easy path that was mentioned was purchasing Renewable Energy Credits. Basically, the renewable attribute of projects that may or may not be located in Atlanta or even in Georgia. I was curious, with your relationship with Georgia Power, although recognizing they are regulated at the state level, what are the tools that you feel like the city has to advance renewable energy locally and meet that goal?
|The city here has several levers at its disposal from, obviously the easiest way to move entirely to clean energy is demand less of it. Our focus area from the beginning is going to be energy efficiency. Building more efficient buildings and making the buildings we have even more efficient than they are already. That is something over which we as a city in the state of Georgia have control. We can set our own building codes and require buildings to become even more efficient than the state mandate. That’s a benefit that I know jurisdictions in other parts of the country do not have and one that we plan to take advantage of.
In terms of renewables, we will certainly help promote adoption of rooftop solar, green space solar where it makes sense for consumers. We, as a municipality and asset manager, are currently in the process of putting about over one megawatt of solar across several other city facilities that will be financed through what we in Georgia call a Solar Energy Procurement Agreement what’s known also around the country as a Power Purchase Agreement. It’ll be first third-party financed solar project of its kind in the state of Georgia. Once we get the panels connected and thereby really leading the way working with Georgia Power to figure out how this framework works for solar is helping other consumers who may not have the resources that we as a city have to be able to adopt similar financing mechanisms for solar at their own facilities.
|You just talked about this third-party financing, and I remember there was a quite a political conversation for a while about having that adopted, but something struck me in one of the news pieces about Atlanta’s commitment that I’d seen which was about looking for other financing tools for other customers. Maybe that was what you were getting at. It had triggered in my mind, this notion of what’s called inclusive financing or pay-as-you-save, where folks can finance energy improvements on their utility bill. Is that kind of what you’re getting at that you’re working with Georgia Power on ways that the city and other customers would be able to finance energy improvements through their Georgia Power Electric bill?
|I guess I should restate my answer to the previous question a little bit and reword it somewhat, which when I said we’re working with Georgia Power on new financing project. What I meant was that for the PPA [Power Purchase Agreement] that we have in place, since it’s the first of its kind in the state, there’s a certain learning curve to making sure we have all the correct documents lined up, and all the processes in place between all of the different parties involved. Fortunately, we as a city have the staff resources available to really go through what can be a complicated process at times, that may be prohibitively difficult for your everyday homeowner. Thereby, us ironing out all of these kinks and getting all these organizations involved very familiar with how this would work, setting up just a standard process, that’s something what will be more easily scalable to other consumers who may want to embark on a similar sort of PPA or SEPA agreement in this area. Because SEPAs were actually illegal in the state of Georgia until the state legislature voted to authorize them in 2016 through a broad coalition. While in other areas, they’ve been around a while, they’re still new ground for us.
Then, in terms of pay-as-you-save programs and other sorts of financing opportunities that may be available, I know that there are many of those that are advocacy groups that are looking specifically into the pay-as-you-save program and others. From a current city program standpoint, I will say that we have been working for many years to develop a Property Assessed Clean Energy program for commercial properties and partnerships with Invest Atlanta, our economic development agency. Yesterday, Invest Atlanta’s Board actually voted to approve a program. So, pending some additional steps surrounding the bond validation, we will most likely have a commercial paid program up and running by the end of the year.
|In other cities that we’ve talked to like Georgetown, Texas, or Pueblo, Colorado, that have made 100% commitments, cost has been a big factor in the decision, and, in both of those cases, renewable energy was projected to help lower energy costs. Is that true for Atlanta? Are electric customers likely to save money by the city’s pursuit of 100% renewable energy?
|At this time with our current low rates in the region, I would say the cost for every single consumer under the way pricing works right now would not save money. That said, we have a 2035 goal, and we’re in 2018, right now. But the priority is on making energy more affordable for all Atlantans. Really, the first driver towards working towards that goal is to focus in on energy efficiency and improving the building spots, that we have more efficient buildings will lower utility bills for consumers. Then, as we move forward and get further renewables adoptions locally, that will help bring the cost of renewable down.
|Sierra Club and others that were involved in, I think in Atlanta, but as well as helping other cities set these goals have talked a lot about making sure that when you’re getting to 100% that the renewable energy benefits everybody. I think you’ve alluded to that in the previous question. Is there a particular focus on helping low income residents of Atlanta and others either access solar or have other strategies to reduce their energy costs?
|Yes, absolutely. I will say that while I have said previously that maybe right now there will be their added cost to going renewable, there are also benefits that over a period of time, we’re talking about, will result in, benefits that exceed the cost associated with them. Those include things like job creation, reducing carbon emission, it will improve air quality and help avert healthcare costs associated currently with poor air quality, and it will help bring local jobs to the area. As Sierra Club and others have said — and our legislation and plan say extensively — we need to make sure that we have 100% clean energy for 100% of Atlantans.
As part of that, we did a really intensive study on electricity burden within the city and pinpointing specific geographies that suffers the highest burdens. As a result of this planning effort, we now know that there are several ZIP codes in Atlanta, in which the median energy burden is above 9%. Which the national average energy burden’s around 3.2%. That is a very high number, and that’s really the reflection of aging infrastructure and building stock that is just not operating efficiently at this time. And those [ZIP codes] are also in lower income, predominantly African-American communities, which is major equity concern. With this more specific data that we have around burdened type of geography, as well as our commitment to transition to 100% clean energy with equity as a priority, we’re going to design policies and programs that really target those who need these benefits the most.
|That’s great to hear. I work with some folks in Minneapolis around their 100% goal and their climate action plan. They have designated some areas of the city as green zones both relative to energy burden and the portion of the people of color that live within those communities for some of their energy efficiency programs and other renewable energy type programs. It’s nice to see that those are commonly held themes. I don’t know if you talked to folks from Minneapolis, but I’m sure they would like to share notes as well about some of the different things that they can do.
|You’re listening to an interview with Megan O’Neil from Atlanta, Georgia, as part of our Voices of 100% series from Local Energy Rules.
Do you know of any folks we should interview about 100% renewable energy commitments in their community? If so, send us an email at Voicesof100@ilsr.org. That’s Voices – of – 100 – at ilsr.org. Stay tuned for the rest of this episode after a short message from our Energy Democracy Initiative Director, John Farrell.
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Thanks again for listening, now, back to the program.
|What’s clear from the work that you guys have done in Atlanta is that you passed your goal initially in the first half of 2017. Then, there was a long process of thinking though the strategies to get there to get to that renewable energy goal. What advice would you offer to cities that maybe have just adopted a goal, or even just considering adopting a goal in that process, and looking back from a position where you’ve done a lot of the planning about how to get there?
|In terms of advice to other cities, I have to say that the two most fundamental aspects of putting together a plan of this scope is: first, assessing where you’re at and what it will take to get to where you need to go just in terms of your power supply, and just within your specific policy environment, what resources are available to you?
Second is engagement with your community. When I say community, I mean every sector. We met with town hall sorts of environments with over 100 people in attendance, where we provided education on just energy policy in general, where Atlanta’s at, how Atlantans personally are affected by fossil fuel emissions in their daily lives in ways they may not have been aware. Also, the benefits that can be realized through a clean energy transition. In those meetings, they were primarily a conversational sort of meeting, where we engaged with our community and collected their feedback on what matters were of highest priority to them. Those were all factored into the plan. In addition, we conducted a large scale survey that we distributed throughout the community. We also held dedicated subject matter expert group meetings with specific sectors such as equity experts, faith leaders, clean tech, economic development, housing, and environmental issues. And [we] really did deep dives with these specific groups of peers to really learn the trends they’re seeing in priority areas, and all of those came together to develop the plan that we’re at.
What I mentioned at the beginning of my response to this question about getting that baseline of where you’re at before you do your education is because that’s just essential to conducting the education successfully. When we did our initial assessment, we saw that, if we maximized all the rooftop solar in the city, we’d get about 17% of the way to that 100% goal. Then, if we maximize all of the green space solar potential, that would only get us another 10% of the way and the rest would have to be achieved through a combination of efficiency, which would be about 35% of the way if we maximize all of our opportunities and then the rest would have to be achieved through purchasing RECs [Renewable Energy Credits].
The common perception when we talk about a clean energy transition or clean energy in general is that all you have to do to achieve it is just put solar everywhere and that’ll get you there, but the truth is that that’s not how it works and that while solar is hugely impactful, putting solar panels on your roof isn’t going to transition you to 100% clean energy, if you don’t have insulation in your attic. Because you’re going to be consuming so much electricity in your home that the solar isn’t going to offset your demand. You need to prioritize these efficiency measures first and the impacts of efficiency are really dramatic to a degree that I think most people don’t realize until we have these conversations.
|That’s just really helpful in terms of the context of what other cities should consider. “Oh, if we just throw solar up everywhere, we’ll be there,” and not just from the efficiency standpoint, but I think also what you’re highlighting is to say, there’s just not in a modern dense urban environment enough space to put all the solar that we would need that the solar panels don’t generate enough energy from the spaces that we have available. Really useful, I think, for what other cities need to think about.
You kind of alluded to this in that setting up the baseline or the expectations that cities have that the policy environment matters, that folks should consider what’s available? What are the tools they have available in their state? You mentioned earlier as well, I think it was very helpful, that Atlanta, for example, has the power to set its own building energy codes so that it can go beyond where the state is at. If there was one state policy that you could just wave a magic wand and change, there’d be no political fight over it, there’d be no debate over it, but you think that would make the path easier for the city in reaching this 100% renewable energy goal, what would it be?
|I would say a statewide efficiency standard and/or renewable portfolio standard would be hugely impactful in working towards this goal.
|Because that would basically either reduce the dominator or increase the numerator, if you will, in that fraction that comes from renewable energy were at large to all Georgia Power customers?
|Very good. Well Megan, I don’t know if there’s anything else that you wanted to mention about the work that you guys are doing in Atlanta, but obviously, we stand in a lot of admiration of you in other places that are not only setting these goals but trying to find a way there. I thank you very much for sharing with me about it.
|Oh, thank you and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that in Atlanta, we’re incredibly fortunate to have a whole bevy of local non-profit partners and environmental groups, both locally and nationally that really are major contributors to this plan. Our local contributors in drafting the plan were Southface Energy Institute and The Greenlink Group. We couldn’t have done it without them.
|Well, we’ll make sure to include some links on the show page so folks can learn more about those organizations and the work they’re doing especially if they also happen to be in the south or southeast and are looking to do that kind of work in their town, it could be great folks for them to reach out to. Thanks again, Megan. Really appreciate your time.
|Thank you, John.
|Thank you so much for listening to episode four of our Voices of 100% special podcast series where our host John Farrell was speaking with Megan O’Neil, the city of Atlanta’s Energy Programs Manager about how Atlanta plans to reach its ambitious goal.
For more information on cities that have committed to 100% renewable energy, check out the other episodes in this series and explore ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map, which is available at ILSR.org. While you’re on our website, you can also find more than 50 past episodes of the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can sign up for one of our newsletters and connect with us on social media.
We encourage you to tune back into the program in three weeks for the next episode in this Voices of 100% series. We’ll either hear from advocates in Portland, Oregon, about an upcoming municipal ballot measure that could help fund the city’s clean energy transition or else from the small town of Abita Springs, Louisiana, on their efforts to go all in on renewable energy.
Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.
O’Neil points to several factors that motivated Atlanta to make the commitment. First, the city has long been a leader in the South on sustainability, energy efficiency, and renewable energy policy. It has used its leverage to push for policy change and saw an opportunity to continue to lead by example.
Then, specifically in reaction to the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the international Paris Climate Agreement, O’Neil describes how Atlanta saw a moment to step up in the absence of federal action.
“We, just like many other cities in the US, felt the responsibility fell on us as a city and a major emitter of carbon emissions within our region, to do everything we could on our own to help advance the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.”
While renewable energy represents less than 10 percent of the electricity mix supplied by Georgia Power, Atlanta’s incumbent utility, O’Neil acknowledges the company will be an “essential partner” in the city’s transition to clean energy and that the utility and city will need to “work together to do what we can to advance this goal.”
O’Neil also notes that Southern Company, of which Georgia Power is a subsidiary, recently made its own goal of “low- to no-carbon operations” by 2050.
Digging into the details of this pledge, Southern Company’s future plans notably include not only the expected mix of renewable energy, battery storage, and energy efficiency measures, but also resource-intensive grid investments, increased use of natural gas, and the construction of new nuclear generation — not the strategies most supporters of distributed generation would hope.
Advocates believe the company “can do more” to advance renewables, particularly as more of the cities like Atlanta that they serve make 100% commitments.
A Local, Renewable Energy Mix
While resource planning decisions made by Georgia Power and Southern Company provide important context and will continue to impact Atlanta’s ability to reach its goal, O’Neil stresses there are other strategies and pathways the city can take to advance clean energy locally, as well. To start, the city plans to focus on energy efficiency.
“The easiest way to move entirely to clean energy is demand less of it,” O’Neil explains. “Our focus area from the beginning is going to be energy efficiency. Building more efficient buildings and making the buildings we have even more efficient than they are already.”
Because Atlanta has the ability to set more ambitious building codes than those established by the state of Georgia, there is ample opportunity for the city to improve how buildings save and use energy more efficiently within its boundaries.
In addition to energy efficiency measures, Atlanta has several other opportunities to use its authority to promote and invest in renewable energy. For example, it can put its public spaces and buildings to use in harnessing local, clean energy.
O’Neil shares how the city is currently installing over one megawatt of rooftop solar on municipal facilities. Once complete, this municipal solar project will the first third-party financed and installed solar project of its kind in the state of Georgia, which only recently began allowing “Solar Energy Procurement Agreement” (SEPAs) or power purchase agreements (PPAs). These third-party ownership models or financing arrangements for rooftop solar can remove traditional, upfront barriers such as installation or maintenance costs.
Early demonstration projects like this can help Atlanta and its utility figure out how different financing mechanisms and ownership frameworks can work. As a result, these projects will ultimately help “other consumers who may not have the resources that we as a city have to be able to adopt similar financing mechanisms for solar at their own facilities,” O’Neil says.
For more on how cities, as asset and facilities managers, can invest in distributed generation on municipal buildings, explore our Public Rooftop Revolution report, and learn how other southern cities are solarizing their rooftops through earlier podcast episodes about Kansas City and Sante Fe.
In addition to creating a scalable model for how a power purchase agreements could roll out citywide, Atlanta has also been active in developing another helpful financing program, this one for commercial properties.
“We have been working for many years to develop a Property Assessed Clean Energy program for commercial properties [through] partnerships with investment in our Economic Development Agency,” O’Neil explains.
Property Assessed Clean Energy or PACE programs finance energy upgrades through adjustments to property tax bills. Because costs and benefits of improvements are tied to the property, this mechanism carries over to future owners in the event a property is sold.
According to O’Neil and given recent city approval, Atlanta will likely have an operational commercial PACE program by the end of this year.
Learn more about how property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs can be helpful tools for financing distributed solar for both residential and commercial customers, here. You can also explore which states enable PACE programs using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
With all of these local strategies in mind, O’Neil explains later in the program how by modeling building footprints and energy demand citywide, Atlanta could reasonably expect to reach more than half of its target locally. This would consist of a mix of energy efficiency measures (35 percent), rooftop solar (17 percent), and green space solar (10 percent), with the remainder likely coming from the purchase of renewable energy credits.
Ensuring Renewable Benefits for All
Local energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy bring a number of benefits, which have further motivated Atlanta’s move toward clean energy. O’Neil cites how these measures can create create local jobs, reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, and improve local air quality, which in turn helps avert healthcare costs associated with poor air quality. In addition, energy efficiency measures can help customers save money.
A key goal of Atlanta’s renewable energy target is whether all of these benefits are accessible to all residents, and support those customers who need relief, in particular.
“Our legislation and plan say extensively — we need to make sure that we have 100 percent clean energy for 100 percent of Atlantans.”
Many households in Atlanta struggle when it comes to paying their electricity bills, in a state and region where residential customers often pay more than the national average.
As a result, Atlanta performed an extensive analysis into the indicator of energy burdened households to understand which areas of the city pay a higher than average share of their income on their utility bills. The results revealed several ZIP codes in lower income and predominantly African-American communities in Atlanta, where, O’Neil explains, the median energy burden is nearly three times the national average (9 percent compared to 3.2 percent).
These staggering results have shifted how the city plans to prioritize its policies and programs to be more equitable.
“With this more specific data that we have around burdened type of geography, as well as our commitment to transition to 100 percent clean energy with equity as a priority, we’re going to design policies and programs that really target those who need these benefits the most,” she explains.
Ultimately, it is important for cities to meet residents where they are — that could mean rooftop solar for some, but for many Atlantans, this means starting with energy efficiency, O’Neil explains.
“While solar is hugely impactful, putting solar panels on your roof isn’t going to transition you to 100 percent clean energy, if you don’t have insulation in your attic.”
For specific examples of how communities like Atlanta can build a more equitable energy system, explore the NAACP Just Energy Toolkit. A complementary video module, which supports this toolkit and draws on ILSR research, illustrates in detail how to advance energy democracy and community renewable energy.
Supporting Renewable Energy Commitments
For other cities looking to make renewable energy commitments, O’Neil has some words of advice. First, she emphasizes how important it is for cities to assess the gap between their current energy system and their goal. This horizon scan will help the city identify what power supplies, policies, and resources it will need.
In addition, O’Neil speaks to the success of Atlanta’s intentional public engagement efforts and recommends other cities develop similar strategies to increase participation.
Atlanta found success, she explains, in drawing on a number of engagement tools, from community member surveys to large 100-person town halls that provided educational resources to residents and helped collect feedback on what the city should prioritize. City staff also organized smaller focus groups with subject matter experts from a range of sectors — on topics ranging from equity to economic development, housing, and the environment — to dig into these priority areas even further.
Outside of what cities can do themselves, O’Neil also points to the importance of state policies for enabling the conditions needed for transforming local energy systems. In Georgia, O’Neil would specifically like to see the state adopt an aggressive statewide energy efficiency standard and a renewable portfolio standard. Such policies would help ensure that Atlanta and its peers are not held back.
Having support from local, state, and national partners helps these commitments, as well.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have a whole bevy of local nonprofit partners and environmental groups, both locally and nationally that really are major contributors to this plan,” O’Neil explains. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Want to hear other stories of how communities are making and implementing 100 percent renewable energy commitments?
Stay-tuned for our next episodes in the Voices of 100% series every three weeks. In upcoming episodes, we’ll feature advocates from Portland, Ore., supporting a November ballot initiative to create a clean energy fund that would support the city’s transition to renewable energy, and local leaders from the small town of Abita Springs, La., about their efforts to reach their 100 percent renewable energy commitment.
Mentioned during the interview, a recent InsideClimate News article summarized Atlanta’s renewable energy pathways and the city’s recently released Clean Energy Atlanta Plan. Additional analysis of Atlanta’s pursuit of renewable energy was featured in Sierra Magazine, as well.
In addition, Megan O’Neil extended thanks to the city’s diverse partners that have been instrumental in supporting Atlanta’s renewable energy pledge and its efforts to-date. These partners include Southface Energy Institute and The Greenlink Group.
For more on city tools to meet ambitious local energy goals, see ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Locate other cities and towns like Atlanta that have existing 100 percent renewable energy commitments, states that have building energy code, property assessed clean energy, and renewable portfolio standard policies, as discussed in this episode, and explore other local and state strategies that help advance clean energy goals, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This episode is part of Voices of , a series of Local Energy Rules and project of the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, produced by Energy Democracy Director John Farrell and Research Associate Marie Donahue.
Photo Credits: John S. Quarterman (featured image: Atlanta solar parking lot), Georgia Sierra Club (Southern Company shareholder meeting inset image), and 100% Campaign/Sheila Pree Bright (partnership meeting inset image) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)