Fighting climate change in Nashville

Published June 16, 2017

Nashville Ledger – June 16, 2017

When President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, phasing out both U.S. commitments to achieve carbon reduction targets and financial contributions to slow climate change, it was a call to action for many.

Local governments, businesses, researchers and those in the private sector pledged to step up and fill in those gaps, including Vanderbilt University law and earth science professors.

Statewide sustainability initiatives show no signs of stopping and, for some of the movement’s leaders, it all starts with trying to change perception.

Michael Vandenbergh serves as director of Vanderbilt’s Climate Change Research Network, which includes affiliates from different departments across the university.

Vandenbergh and social psychology researcher Alexander Maki recently finished an online study that showed conservative Americans – the least likely to support policy to slow climate change – are more open to reducing carbon emissions when policies are presented through the lens of private governance.

“One thing we find in our research is that people’s political viewpoint determines their view on climate change. But the climate doesn’t care whether you’re on the left or on the right,” Vandenbergh says. “What we have worked on is, if you assume that it is concern about big government that drives a great deal of the opposition to climate, is there a response that doesn’t involve the government?

“And in the near term, what we’re showing is that there’s an enormous amount that we can do, and I’m pleased to see that some of that leadership is occurring in the U.S. Southeast.”

Reputations, money matter

While the implications of pulling out of the Paris Climate agreement aren’t good, Vandenbergh adds, it will have very little effect domestically. That’s because many states and businesses are already assuming that there’s a lower price to natural gas combined with the reputation pressure and the cost benefits of achieving efficiencies.

“I think that in terms of the business climate in the Southeast, it will be driven much more by the low price of natural gas, the low price of wind and solar, and the reputation concerns that companies that do business in the Southeast and in the U.S. and around the world are all facing,” he says.

There is, in fact, social pressure put on businesses to go and stay green. Regulations or not, it’s what today’s customers and shareholders expect.

“It’s not by chance that when Apple built a new major manufacturing facility in Arizona it also, at the same time, built a new major solar power project to provide the energy. It was trying to respond to those kind of pressures,” Vandenbergh points out.

Walmart is one of the top two installers of rooftop solar in the nation. And Google agreed to locate its massive data center in Clarksville only after the Tennessee Valley Authority agreed to supply it with renewable power.

“Businesses are finding that reducing their carbon footprint is good business,” Vandenbergh adds. “It’s good business on a pure economic basis, it’s good business for reputation purposes and it’s good business to attract top employees. And it’s good business because, in many cases, corporate buyers of your products are demanding that you do so.”

No matter the outcome of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement, the implication is clear, Vandenbergh says. And it isn’t good.

“We are now signaling to the world that we share the values of Syria and Nicaragua, and now China is taking the leadership role in the direction of the climate problem,” he says. “The most important piece of the Paris agreement is the signal it gives the rest of the world about what the United States wants to be a leader or a follower. And so we just sent the signal that we want to be a follower.”

Southeast’s energy usage

The best way to look at how the mix of energy sources for power generation is changing is to examine each source’s share of total generation, says Tyler Hodge with the Office of Electricity, Coal, Nuclear and Renewables Analysis in the U.S. In Tennessee, coal provided 28 percent of total generation for the first three months of 2017 and natural gas 13 percent.

“These generation shares are slightly down from 35 percent and 14 percent, respectively, during the first quarter last year,” Hodge explains. “However, this change is probably distorted by the opening of the Watts Bar nuclear unit last year.”

Watts Bar is located on 1,700 acres on the northern end of the Chickamauga Reservoir near Spring City, in East Tennessee. Each unit produces about 1,150 megawatts of electricity – enough to service 650,000 homes – without creating any carbon emissions.

“So, overall, there has been a strong shift from coal to natural gas in the region over the last five years, primarily a result of sustained low natural gas prices,” Hodge says. “However, there has been a lot of fuel shifting recently. In terms of renewables other than hydropower, its share of generation is growing but still accounts for less than 3 percent of total generation in the Southeast.”

The Southeast is really important to climate change in a couple of different ways, Vandenbergh adds. For one, it is important as a source of carbon emissions.

“The Southeastern states, if you include Florida, would be the sixth largest country in the world,” he continues. “Larger than Germany. In terms of the total carbon emissions, the U.S. Southeast is a very important world player.

“The Southeastern states as governments have, for the most part, sued EPA to stop EPA from enforcing carbon reduction rules and is not a national leader in promoting renewable power. From a policy perspective, this is one reason why private action is so important.”

Changing a mindset

Vandenbergh, along with Jonathan Gilligan, Vanderbilt associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, has a book coming out this fall called “Beyond Politics: The Private Governance Response to Climate Change,” that addresses the actions taken in the private sector that are the most promising opportunities to reduce the risks of climate change, buying time, while government plays catchup.

“If you’re running a business and someone came to you in the board room and said that 90 percent of the experts on a particular topic think that something is going to happen, they would at least account for it in some very important way, even if they didn’t agree or think that something should be done,” Vandenbergh explains.

The book draws on law, policy, social science and climate science to demonstrate how private initiatives are already bypassing government inaction, and is an extension of the work Vandenbergh and Gilligan have been immersed in for more than a decade –concerning issues related to what businesses and other private sector actors can do, and are doing, about climate change.

“Many people in the business sector are acting in good faith to try to reduce costs and to reduce their footprint,’’ Vandenbergh explains. “I think that many of the utilities are trying to move in the right direction as well.

“But they have a business model that requires them to sell more power. And they have very heavy investments in existing infrastructure.

“One of the things that I think the most forward-thinking utilities are doing is looking down the road and saying, ‘how do we succeed as a business in a world in which solar power is becoming cheaper than any other source?’”

Chris Koczaja, the new president of Lightwave Solar, has a background in renewable energy and has spent seven years in turning garbage into electricity. Before that, he worked for 10 years with Capital Incorporated in power generation.

The installed cost of a solar energy system is down substantially in just the last 12 months, Koczaja says, with the adoption and economies of scale and manufacturing.

“All of a sudden we’re seeing opportunities to not just put in panels because people like it and it’s carbon neutral, but now the economic picture says we should put in panels just because it makes sense anyway,” Koczaja notes. “We’re starting to see a lot more projects that are in that vein and we’re calling them ‘Behind the Meter projects.’

“Basically, we’re saying panels are going to generate power close to grid parity or about what you’d pay for if you just bought power from the grid itself. It’s a big step.”

Tennessee’s role in change

Nashville’s Mayor Megan Barry formed the Livable Nashville Committee in 2016, bringing in leaders from Nashville’s public, private, environmental, academic and philanthropic sectors, and charged those members with developing a shared vision for protecting and enhancing Nashville’s livability and environmental quality.

It’s just one step she has made to reduce carbon emissions before responding to Trump’s Paris decision.

“The United States of America should be a global leader in addressing the dire impact of climate change on our civilization, and it is very disappointing that President Trump does not see that,” she said in a statement.

“As a member of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, I am committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and working with corporations and citizens to do the same, even if the President is not. There’s too much at stake for cities not to lead on this issue, and Nashville will.”

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who is running for governor and has supported green initiatives, says Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement shouldn’t sway any commitment to making Tennessee a green-energy economy.

“I think when you look at issues related to clean air and clean water and how we maintain the environment, you have to strike a balance,” he says. “At the same time, it’s important to have jobs. It’s important to have jobs being created, and jobs could be created in existing industries, jobs could be created in new industry that deal with sustainability and those are all part of what make a state go.

“I look at this as it’s sort of an opportunity for the state to carve out its own path.

“Clearly, local governments can go on with their own efforts. It’s a chance for local government to be creative and to make sure that they’re doing what they can do to keep their cities or towns healthy and to keep the water and air as pure as we can.

“Clearly you want to see a commitment to clean air and clean water but the foreign policy issue of cooperation with other nations are things that are really something that belongs to the national government. It’s time for local governments and state governments to be creative. There’s a vacuum that they can fill.’’

Even Atlanta recently committed to the incredibly ambitious goal to buy 100 percent renewable power by 2035.

“What you’re seeing is that even cities and private institutions are making their own independent commitments and realizing it doesn’t have to just be a government-driven process,” Vandenbergh says.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who was recently re-elected, tweeted that his city was once “the dirtiest’’ in America in pledging his support to stand with other mayors in backing the Paris Accord.

Rogero looks to the future

Since 2007, the City of Knoxville’s Energy and Sustainability Initiative has made big steps toward advancing sustainability, with a goal to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with city operations and the Knoxville community each by 20 percent by 2020 – relative to 2005 levels.

Based on the most recent inventory, emissions from Knoxville operations are down nearly 13 percent, and community emissions have fallen 7.75 percent relative to 2005 levels.

It is this burgeoning progress that led Mayor Madeline Rogero to also sign the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy and release her own statement.

“The president’s action takes us in the wrong direction at a time when almost every nation in the world has agreed on the need for climate action,” she says. “Like mayors in cities across the country, I will maintain Knoxville’s commitment to reducing our carbon emissions and promoting sustainability in all of our operations.”

One project the city is in the process of implementing has significant implications for carbon emissions specifically, retrofitting all 29,500 city street lights to LEDs, according to Erin Gill, director of sustainability for Knoxville.

There is not currently a contract for the LED lighting retrofit projects but it is expected to begin at the start of 2018 and be complete by the end of that year.

Gill says the conservative estimate will be $1 million in annual energy savings and another $1 million in maintenance.

“The lights are warrantied for 10 years, so just in the warranty period alone we’re going to save $20 million dollars,” she continues. “That’s a pretty conservative estimate but there’s quite a bit of money on the table by doing this type of project.”

The harder nut to crack is community-level emissions, which are contingent on the actions and behaviors and decisions of private residents and businesses.

One that is working is the Knoxville Energy Makeover Program, a $15 million effort that helps lower income customers make investments in energy efficiency themselves.

It began in August of 2015 and is now reaching toward the end of the initial batch of funding. Gill says it is having a significant impact on energy use within the residential sector.

“We’re in Year 10 of focusing at the city on sustainability and having dedicated staff who work on this,” Gill adds. “In that time, they have completed energy efficiency retrofit at 99 of our city facilities and rolling out a fiscally responsible curbside recycling program.

“We have an alternative transportation engineer whose job it is to integrate alternative transportation options,” Gill points out.

“We have an Urban Forester now who’s looking at our tree canopy. There’s been a robust integration of sustainability principles throughout city government.

“This has been a locally-motivated initiative since its beginning. We continue to have the local motivation to push forward regardless of whether there’s federal leadership or not.”

And it isn’t all about money, Gill says. It’s about what’s best for Knoxville.

“We take very seriously that what we are doing is improving quality of life for our residents,” Gill adds. “While we want to think about quality of life for our future, the initiatives that we push in our sustainability office have real benefits today and are driven locally with an eye toward how they benefit local residents.

“We talk about climate change. We believe in climate change. We’re not fighting or resisting the science and the data there. When I think about the initiatives that we are really driven by, there are those that have a global impact but also are rooted in local benefits and what makes sense for our local community.”