Environment

Atlanta Is Working On Climate Change, But There’s More To Do

Solar panels cover cars parked in a lot nearby Centennial Olympic Park,
The city of Atlanta plans to add solar panels to some of its buildings.
Credit Jaime Henry-White / Associated Press file

While the federal response to climate change has sputtered, Atlanta is one of the cities that’s stuck with its goals, and it’s adding more.

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One the city’s main initiatives is the Better Buildings Challenge, a project to cut energy and water use from buildings by 20 percent. City-owned buildings, schools and dozens of commercial buildings are participating, including some of the city’s biggest skyscrapers.

Atlanta is also adding electric vehicles to its fleet and plans to get solar panels for some of its buildings. It’s reduced energy use at one of its water treatment facilities by nearly half.

And Mayor Kasim Reed pledged to stick with the Paris climate agreement in June, after President Donald Trump decided to pull the U.S. out of the international effort to cut emissions.

Mayor Kasim Reed has attended national and international meetings on climate change.
Mayor Kasim Reed has attended national and international meetings on climate change. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press file)

“It matters a lot what a city like Atlanta chooses to do,” said Jennifer Layke, global director of the energy program at the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. “The commitments that are being made are really important, I think, to signal there remains leadership in the United States toward the goals we all set in Paris.”

Atlanta City Council has set another big goal: to have all city operations using 100 percent clean energy by 2025, and the whole city by 2035. So no more electricity from coal or natural gas.

“It’s a great slogan, and you can put it in a tweet, but actually getting there is going to take commitment from every resident in Atlanta,” said Stephanie Stuckey, chief resilience officer for the city of Atlanta.

The biggest way to work toward that clean energy goal, said Stuckey, is not some exciting new technology. It’s energy efficiency.

“By reducing how much energy we consume on the front end, we’ll get a long way there,” she said. “It’s wonky, but it’s really important.”

The other ways to get there — that do rely on technology — will get easier, said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia, a group that supports Atlanta’s effort.

“What we’re seeing is the cost of solar is dropping, the cost of storage is dropping,” she said. “All of the things that will drive this goal are becoming easier and cheaper, and I think that trend will continue.”

One other challenge is bureaucratic. Layke said this can’t be a backburner project. City Council and the new mayor will have to focus on getting different parts of city government to work together on the goal — including agencies that may not have had to collaborate in the past.

“It’s an institutional challenge, not as much a technology challenge,” she said.

The city’s plan for achieving 100 percent clean energy is due in January. It’s holding meetings beginning in November to hear from residents.

Atlanta voters are preparing to elect a new mayor and replace nearly half the City Council. In this moment of transition, WABE is exploring “The Future of Atlanta.”