The transition to 100% clean power: Athens begins a “generational undertaking”

“This is a generational undertaking with no blueprint or precedent to draw upon.” 
-Athens’ 100% Clean and Renewable Plan

In August, the ACC Commission approved a plan to achieve 100% clean and renewable electricity for the local government by 2035 and for the broader Athens community by 2050. The plan, which was created by the Southface Institute and Greenlink Analytics, presents different scenarios and policy options for the commission to consider in coming years as they attempt to meet their clean energy goals.

The plan puts a strong focus on equity throughout its many pages, measuring policy options based on how they impact income and racial disparities. It also provides action steps for how to engage the community in the process of cleaning up our energy grid going forward, which will be essential for the plan’s success.

Table of Contents

Addressing a global problem on a local scale

Most Americans believe that climate change is a serious problem that both the government and private sector should be doing more to address. In Georgia, 71% of residents believe that climate change is real and 60% believe that local officials should be doing more to fight it, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Map.

In a progressive town like Athens, those numbers are probably much higher. Fortunately our local government has already started to address the issue after some advocacy by the group 100% Athens

What we’re already doing

Mayor Kelly Girtz signed the Sierra Club’s 100% renewable energy pledge back in 2019, which was the first victory for 100% Athens. Then, they successfully pushed for $15.8 million for renewable energy to be included in SPLOST 2020. These SPLOST dollars will be invested in projects that reduce the ACC government’s energy bills, and those savings will be reinvested to produce even more renewable energy. 

The local government has decided to purchase only hybrid or electric vehicles going forward where possible. They also raised the bar on the construction of public buildings with a new sustainable building policy in 2021. Furthermore, they have been conducting energy audits to find cost-effective ways they could be saving energy.

That’s what the local government has done recently, but they’ve actually been working on this issue since 1998 when they built the first “green” building in Athens at Sandy Creek Nature Center. Since then, they’ve installed solar arrays at the ACC Library, the ACC Jail and Corrections Department, the multimodal center, the ACC Cooperative Extension building and the Cedar Creek Water Reclamation Facility. Also important to mention is the natural gas capture system the ACC Solid Waste Department installed at the landfill, which can reduce waste in our groundwater by capturing renewable gas to burn for power in the place of fossil fuel.

Since significant progress has already been made in Athens, ”business-as-usual” might not be as bad as it sounds. Even so, what we’re currently doing is not enough to achieve the clean energy goals of our community, according to the 100% clean energy plan.

Future energy scenarios

The Business-as-Usual Scenario

Greenlink Analytics estimates that, in a business-as-usual scenario, 23% of our electricity needs in Athens will be supplied by renewable energy in 2035. Carbon emissions will decrease by roughly 20% even as electricity demand increases by 6%. That’s because Georgia’s energy grid will continue to grow greener over time, even if it lags behind more progressive states. Likewise, more homeowners in Athens will continue to save themselves money by installing solar panels, improving the efficiency of their homes and buying electric cars or hybrids.

Business as usual scenario graph
How Athens would generate its electricity over time in a business-as-usual scenario. Source: Greenlink Analytics

As beneficial as these efforts are, none of them will be enough to eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels. They won’t even get us to the target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of 45% clean energy by 2030. According to these scientists, reaching this goal may be needed for the world to avoid climate catastrophe.

Despite providing some improvement, the business-as-usual scenario will “fail to address the negative effects of climate change on our community … ignore opportunities to improve public health” and “widen the energy burden and opportunity gaps between populations,” according to the 100% clean energy plan.

For these reasons, the ACC Commission is unlikely to abandon their resolve to achieve 100% clean and renewable electricity for the entire community by 2050 and for the local government by 2035. That takes the business-as-usual scenario off the table, and leaves the commission and the rest of the community to decide between two alternate paths to 100%.

The Maximum Clean Energy Scenario

The commission might choose to aggressively pursue any and all cost-effective clean energy improvements in coming years, and they might be joined in this effort by the broader community. This is modeled as the “maximum” clean energy scenario. 

In this scenario, Athens residents and institutions would receive $3.8 billion in clean energy benefits by 2035 at an additional cost of $500 million compared to the business-as-usual scenario. 16,000 homes (or the equivalent) would install rooftop solar panels, 11,400 jobs would be created (both directly in the energy industry and indirectly elsewhere in the economy) and residents would save a combined $329 million through lowered power bills.

How Athens would generate its electricity over time in a maximum clean scenario. Source: Greenlink Analytics

Athenians’ health would improve in this scenario as well, due to improved air quality. That will increase quality of life and save an estimated $305 million on health expenses by 2035. Athens’ energy burden, which is the share of our collective monthly income we spend on energy bills, would shrink from 7.5% to 6.2%, with much of the benefit gained by lower-income residents. 

Therefore, the maximum clean scenario would shrink inequality, improve our economy and remove 6.7 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

The Economically-Effective Scenario

The maximum clean scenario has a large cost, estimated at $500 million, which is relatively low compared to the benefits it provides. However, the cost-to-benefit ratio could be even higher if Athens chooses to invest only in projects with the highest and quickest return on investment. This potential choice is modeled as the “economically-effective” scenario.

How Athens would generate its electricity over time in an economically-green scenario. Source: Greenlink Analytics

In this scenario, energy efficiency would be prioritized in the short term but solar energy installations would make up a large portion of the plan by 2035. 7,500 homes (or the equivalent) would install rooftop solar panels, 7,170 jobs would be created and community power bills would fall by $212 million. $144 million would be saved through improved public health and 3.9 million metric tons of CO2 would be removed from the atmosphere.

In total, this scenario has a combined cost of about $200 million, which would be split between the public and private sector.

Renewable Energy Certificates

The maximum clean energy scenario described above represents the most aggressive action our community could take over the next decade to address climate change. Unfortunately, even this kind of bold action would not be enough to get Athens to 100% clean electricity by itself.

To close the gap and get us to 100%, the plan anticipates the purchase of a large amount of renewable energy certificates in lieu of actually producing all of the clean power that would be needed.

What is a renewable energy certificate?

A renewable energy certificate is a record of renewable power that has been added to the energy grid from a certain power producer. Since the “greenness” of energy can’t be tracked once it enters the grid – one electron looks the same as another no matter how the energy is produced – these certificates provide an accounting mechanism that helps us track who should get credit for the renewable power produced.

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The power producer can sell their certificates on the market to any institution that values the concept of renewable energy. These municipalities or businesses can then claim ownership of that renewable energy and count it towards their total to help them achieve a certain benchmark like 100%, even if they are actually still burning fossil fuels for power.

At their best, renewable energy certificates would be a subsidy for renewable power generation and would encourage its production. At their worst, renewable energy certificates would make us feel better about the carbon emissions we’d still be generating, while doing very little or nothing to stop it.

It remains to be seen whether the ACC Commission will see renewable energy certificates as a worthy investment. But without them, the goal of 100% clean and renewable electricity would be extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve by 2035 or even 2050.

Policy options on the road to 100%

Much of the rest of the plan discusses various policy options available to help get Athens closer to 100% renewable energy. 

For example, commissioners could choose to set up a revolving clean energy loan fund, give a green building rebate to developers, divest the ACC pension fund from fossil fuels, improve the efficiency of our wastewater treatment plants, invest in public transportation, build electric vehicle charging stations and partner with Athens Tech to help train a new clean energy workforce.  

The importance of equity

Each policy option is ranked by its impact on income and wealth inequality, in addition to its effectiveness at reducing carbon emissions. For example, providing rebates to the developers of green buildings may be a good way to reduce emissions, but it’s likely to worsen inequality. Much better are things like investments in public transportation and training a clean energy workforce, which help us achieve our clean energy goals and at the same time actually reduce inequality.

But a focus on equity isn’t just “wokeism.” Social inequalities are in fact major barriers on the way to 100%, as the plan describes. For example, people with low incomes are more likely to rent and they are obviously less likely to have money available to purchase things like solar panels or better insulation for their homes. Their landlords own the homes but don’t pay the power bills, meaning they have very little incentive to invest in energy efficiency even if they have the available funds.

Does that mean Athens will always be stuck with inefficient homes and high energy bills? Yes, at least if we keep thinking in individualistic ways. The path forward to make progress on both climate change and inequality is to realize that they are connected, and that investing in our poorest citizens using public money is the best path forward for our entire community.

The ACC government has already started a community energy fund that’s intended to help low-income residents improve the energy efficiency of their homes. That’s fortunate, because Athens’ path to 100% hinges on the effectiveness of programs like this.

Next Steps

The plan to achieve 100% clean and renewable energy is an important step, but it’s just a start. It details a number of programs and policy changes that can help us reach our clean energy goals, but the commission can’t take action on anything in the plan immediately. The ACC Sustainability Office and other government departments will bring actionable steps forward to the commission in coming years, but community activists will still play a necessary role in ensuring that this plan is carried out.

The members of 100% Athens, whose advocacy resulted in the creation of the plan, are still active in the community and will help guide it to completion. For example, 100% Athens activist Cary Ritzler is now the Georgia Organizer for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. She told APN that with the passage of the (strangely named) Inflation Reduction Act by the US Congress, plenty of funding should be available for Athens to make the switch to clean energy.

“The IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] in particular is going to really juice the clean energy manufacturing industry,” Ritzler said. “I think the speed of change where city facilities are concerned is likely to be determined more by the capacity of the commission and ACC staff than by availability of materials or funding.”

This means we truly have the potential here in Athens to make a just, equitable and rapid transition to renewable energy over the next couple decades. It will take effort and assistance from the entire community – homeowners, businesses and government agencies alike – but the capacity for change is within our reach.

How much are we willing to invest over the short term to reap long-term rewards such as lowered power bills, a healthier population, an improved economy and reduced inequality? We’ll find out. In a decade or two, we may either be enjoying these benefits or probably wishing we had done more. 

The choice is ours.

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