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Saving green by going green

City of Atlanta's first energy policy could save millions

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For about 25 years, the Southface Energy Institute has sat not too far from City Hall in a futuristic house on Pine Street that uses almost no energy.

Southface is one of the premier nonprofit think tanks on energy efficiency in the Southeast. Its staff are experts on everything from alternative energy sources and solar panels to conservation and appliances that use half the electricity as most.

Executive Director Dennis Creech says he worked with city officials "off and on," but the knowledge tucked away inside Southface was largely untapped. Until now.

For the first time in city history, Atlanta officials are devising an energy policy -- with the help of Southface -- that will stress conservation and, eventually, sustainable energies.

The best part, though, is that implementing the plan just might save the city between $5 million and $7 million a year on its electric bill.

That's good news for City Hall, which faces a $35 million budget shortfall. The city has reduced its workforce by 900 people this year and city employees will be forced to take five days off without pay to save the city money. So far, Mayor Shirley Franklin and the City Council have cut $39 million from the budget and raised taxes 46 percent.

Trimming energy costs is another piece of the fiscal puzzle. A bonus is that reducing energy consumption reduces power plant pollution. (For all you newcomers, that's a good thing. Atlantans breathe some of the most polluted air in the nation.)

"This is obviously real important when you get to enhance the environmental quality of the city and save money for the city itself and the residents of the city," Creech says.

The idea to come up with an energy policy came from City Council President Cathy Woolard. She's watched as other cities implement green policies that garner national acclaim. San Francisco installed solar panels to generate its own electricity, while Portland, Ore., created an Office of Sustainable Development. In the fierce competition between cities to recruit new businesses and jobs, those progressive ideas make a big difference.

Thanks to a U.S. Department of Energy grant, Woolard and Southface staffers hosted an all-day brainstorming session Aug. 21 with Franklin's director of public policy, Greg Giornelli, City Councilwoman Clair Muller and energy experts from across the country. That was when a Department of Energy consultant told Woolard that the city could save millions of dollars a year by implementing several ideas that would cost little to no money.

For example, by consolidating the city's billing information (currently each department pays their own bills, so no one even knows how much the city spends on electricity) the city could renegotiate its rates and get a reduced price.

"What [the DOE] found was that cities the size of Atlanta that did that kind of retooling could save 10 percent to 20 percent," Woolard says.

The DOE will help the city too, for free. Its reps will train city employees to mind their electricity use, develop a system for tracking improvements and reward offices that make the bigger strides. It's also giving the city software that will save $20 a year per computer monitor.

These actions are part of a 60-day plan that is already under way. In fact, Ben Taube, environmental manager for the Public Works Department, and Woolard's chief of staff, Helen Robinson, are gathering and analyzing the energy bills already.

Southface, DOE and city officials will get together again 60 days after the first meeting to discuss their progress and generate more ideas.

For at least the next year, they'll be focused on finding ways to save the city money. Down the road though, Woolard and Creech want to look into grander things.

"The goal now is to stay focused on savings," says Woolard. "Next year, once through the budget, then we'll be at a better place to focus on long-range stuff."

That long-range stuff includes visions of solar panels on top of city buildings, and new laws that encourage conservation and alternative energies both within city government and among entities outside of city government.

"One of the problems, for example, in the city right now is the zoning and permitting process for buildings," Creech says. "So what about if you could give some incentives to developers to do environmentally friendly design in the zoning and permitting process? Other cities have done that sort of stuff."


michael.wall@creativeloafing.com


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