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Growing the economy while tackling climate change

Atlanta skyline - piedmont park

Atlanta’s Skyline from Piedmont Park (Photo by : Frank Southworth - 2015)

By Guest Columnist MARILYN A. BROWN, Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy

Since the Industrial Revolution, the atmosphere has been the world’s principal repository for carbon pollution, providing a free-for-all approach to waste management that has resulted in global climate change with serious consequences for human and environmental health.

Responding to the need for action, two major climate milestones occurred this summer.

At the federal scale, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final Clean Power Plan, regulating carbon pollution from existing power plants for the first time.

And at the local scale, the City of Atlanta released it Climate Action Plan, setting targets for Atlanta’s carbon emissions.

Marilyn Brown

Marilyn Brown
Ivan Allen College
Georgia Institute of Technology

The success of these two initiatives are mutually dependent and symbiotic. EPA’s Clean Power Plan requires strong local action such as Atlanta’s new commitment to energy efficiency and solar energy. Atlanta’s Climate Action Plan, in turn, needs national policies to ensure affordable, reliable, low-carbon electricity.

How can this partnership work?

The Clean Power Plan gives states flexible options to meet carbon pollution limits in ways that reflect their resources and preferences. The low-cost compliance pathways that Georgia Tech has modeled for the South are different from business-as-usual: they accelerate the closure of coal plants and increase investment in gas plants, but the growth of natural gas is strongly tempered by a strong uptake of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Since the Clean Power Plan was released a year ago for public feedback and input, a number of opponents have claimed that reducing carbon pollution will saddle American families with higher electricity bills and will hurt the economy. In contrast, an increasing number of independent studies, including a new study by Georgia Tech, show that if states choose low-cost approaches to limit pollution with an emphasis on energy efficiency, they can reduce electricity bills.

As energy is used more effectively, non-competitive power plants can be retired, construction of new power plants can be deferred, and transmission and distribution infrastructure investments can be postponed. And that in turn can mitigate expected rate increases. Jobs would grow (since energy efficiency is a labor intensive enterprise) and more of these jobs would be local.

energy chart

Chart showing different possible scenarios of energy usage (Source: Georgia Tech)

During a recent Georgia Public Service Commission hearing, a witness for the Commission testified that the delayed construction schedule for plant Vogtle’s nuclear units 3 and 4 would add $319 to the average annual residential ratepayer’s bill beginning in 2016. In contrast, analysis by the Georgia Institute of Technology suggests that the average household in Georgia could reduce its annual electricity bill by $220 in 2020 and by $344 in 2030, if a low-carbon pathway with a major push on energy efficiency and solar power, plus natural gas were implemented.

Atlanta’s Climate Action Plan includes a big push on energy efficiency and solar, which are going to help states meet their carbon pollution reduction targets.

While Atlanta’s skyline has long been a symbol of innovation and prosperity, what you don’t see is that the buildings in this silhouette are some of the city’s largest energy consumers and polluters.

Atlanta’s City Council voted unanimously this summer to help redraw the city’s energy and environmental profile by passing the Commercial Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance (CBEEO).

The CBEEO will give owners the ability to retrieve utility data from tenants, and will require that the data to be entered into an online software tool. In return, the owners will receive weather-adjusted performance scores that they can compare with the scores of similar properties. This will help building owners diagnose the energy efficiency of their buildings: knowledge is power.

Atlanta skyline - piedmont park

Atlanta’s Skyline from Piedmont Park (Photo by : Frank Southworth – 2015)

Then, to help building owners improve the efficiency of their buildings, the Mayor’s Sustainability Office can help owners obtain building energy audits, financing and assistance to retrofit their buildings. Atlanta’s receipt of a City Energy Project grant is facilitating this process. Last year, Atlanta was selected to become one of 10 cities nationwide to join the City Energy Project, an initiative designed to improve energy efficiency in large buildings. The initiative in Atlanta is projected to deliver $2B in energy savings.

The CBEEO requires that city-owned buildings first be benchmarked, and that the city’s privately owned buildings larger than 25,000 square feet be benchmarked next. The buildings targeted by the ordinance represent nearly half of the city’s energy consumption, and more than a third of its carbon emissions.

As a result of this ordinance, Atlanta’s real estate market will soon operate more efficiently. High-performance buildings will be worth more. Tenants with high utility bills in poor performing buildings will be empowered, and buyers will know more about the true value of properties before making an offer.

Replicating Atlanta’s approach across the nation (benchmarking, transparency, energy audits, and retro-commissioning) could go a long way toward meeting the goals of the Clean Power Plan.


  1. Gil Robison August 18, 2015 4:25 am

    The question is not what does this mean for your pocket book(unless of course you are concerned only with how profitable your business is.) The question is what does this mean for your lungs? Your COPD? Your children’s health?Report

  2. David Kyler August 18, 2015 10:10 am

    It is encouraging to read about progress on climate change in Georgia, belated as it may be. An important fact in Ms, Brown’s editorial that deserves emphasizing is that energy conservation sustains more jobs than energy production.  A related corollary is that clean energy (wind, solar, etc.) sustains more jobs that conventional forms of power production, by far. In any case, we cannot afford to defend a destructive status quo on the basis of false or misleading claims about jobs or the economy. With vitally needed progress in responsible use of the earth, such as that described in this editorial, some jobs will be lost but many more will be gained. And regardless of jobs, the viability and quality of our way life is the ultimate measure of success. Reducing the causes of an overheating climate is essential to that goal.Report


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