DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry (File)

DeKalb County announced last week that they have selected Southface Institute to develop the county’s plan to have 100% clean energy by 2050. The county passed a resolution committing to 100% clean energy in 2021.

“DeKalb County is a very environmentally conscious county. However, one of the things that I think we had been faltering on is our approach to climate change — clean energy, clean transportation,” said District 6 DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry.

After winning election, Terry quickly realized the county government lacked basic adaptations such as solar panels on buildings and electric cars in its fleet. So he worked to create a plan that would allow the county to transition to entirely clean energy.

“We passed this resolution in 2021, but this is good timing because the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year. There’s literally billions of dollars for local governments to expand clean energy, clean transportation, work on climate mitigation, reducing greenhouse gases, and so the way that we get access to that funding is [by having] a plan,” Terry said.

Creating a plan

blue solar panel board
Photo by Pixabay on

To create this plan, DeKalb County has brought in the nonprofit Southface Institute to work on ideas for the county. However, Terry emphasized that creating this plan will take time (he estimated it will be finished next year), and DeKalb will be making changes on its own in the meantime.

“We’re doing it on both hands — we’re going to work on this larger transition plan, which is a really big undertaking, but at the same time, we understand that electric vehicles, solar, energy efficiency are all things that not only work, but can save the county money,” Terry said. “We’re not going to wait until we get the plan 100% done. We know there’s things we can do in the government right now that would be good for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, cleaning up our air quality, and saving the county quite frankly millions of dollars.”

While those opposed to adapting for climate change say it costs too much money to become sustainable,Terry and most experts disagree. He said the math supports him.

“At our Maloof Building…we are going to spend about $400,000 to retrofit and bring it up to energy efficient standards. And that investment will pay for itself in six months just by the operational cost savings,” Terry explained. “The big variable that we can [control] right now is just to use less energy, and we can do that through energy efficiency.”

Terry expressed his hopes that Georgia Power would work directly with the county to help residents access clean energy.

“We consider Georgia Power and the Southern Company [Georgia Power’s parent company] stakeholders [in our plan],” he said. “We can’t make them do this. We understand that the Southern Company has [clean energy by 2050] as their goal, but we would like to see a commitment from [specifically] Georgia Power to help DeKalb County reach our 100% clean energy goal. It could mean a whole host of things, such as expanding community solar programs for those who live in apartment complexes, [which would let them] take advantage of that cheaper energy.”

He pointed out that most tenants cannot simply install solar panels because they don’t own the roof of the building or the parking lot, two places where solar panels are typically installed. Georgia Power creating community programs would allow those people to access the cheaper solar energy available to homeowners.

“We’ll have to work with them to develop, like we say, clean energy for all. It doesn’t matter about your income, it matters whether you, as a Georgia Power customer, want to [and are able to] invest in an energy source that is not damaging the planet,” Terry said.

Terry noted that due to income inequality, people may also be less prepared to deal with extreme temperatures, especially those living on fixed incomes or in older houses.

“When you talk about energy equity and energy burden, we know that power bills are going up every year, higher than inflation. And unfortunately, we have literally hundreds of residents that reach out to us every year that are seeking energy assistance,” Terry said. “They can’t afford to pay their power bills, or live in a home or an apartment that was built decades ago with very substandard building codes, and end up having to run their AC just constantly or, because of cost issues, they just don’t run their AC. And the troubling aspect about that is heat deaths are becoming way too common,” he said. “It really bothers me that we have individuals, mostly seniors and and folks on fixed incomes, whose only source of keeping cool is to keep the thermostat at 80 degrees and just run a fan.”

The commissioner pointed to one program, Empower Clarkston, that was working to address those issues by training people to be HVAC technicians as well as teaching them how to install insulation and caulk. Small changes like that, he says, can make a big difference in someone’s house and allow them to save on energy costs. Changes like that, he said, will be part of their big plan.

Working with Southface

Samantha Pettigrew is Southface’s Project Manager for Sustainable Communities and Transportation. Southface has also worked with the city of Decatur and Athens-Clark County on their renewable-energy-by-2050 plans. She is in charge of helping DeKalb figure out how to achieve their sustainability goals.

“It’s one thing to make the goals, but another thing to be able to reach that goal,” she said.

Pettigrew and Terry both discussed how important community input will be for this project.

“We want the community input,” Pettigrew said. “That is a very important part of the project, getting the community engagement, and making sure that we are not prescribing a solution that is not wanted by the residents but instead doing things that the residents want to see. We [want to be] confident that we are on the side of the people as well as the government to make this as smooth of a project…as possible.” She also said that a website would be up soon so that residents can see the process.

Pettigrew described one unique idea for DeKalb that comes from the Seminole Road Landfill. The landfill has a station specifically to create renewable natural gas from the gases in the landfill that would otherwise simply become pollution. While it’s not in use right now, Pettigrew said they could start it up again and it could power plenty of things.

“The methane that is captured from the landfill can be used to not only power buildings…we would want to be able to sell that energy and to use it to power vehicles for the landfill and create a fuel for the landfill vehicles, like trash trucks and other county vehicles,” she said.

Terry emphasized the immediacy of the problems posed by climate change.

“The sad reality that we’re in is that, because of climate change, we are in a real existential crisis. In DeKalb County, we are seeing record temperatures, record rainfall, neighborhoods that are seeing the highest stormwater flooding levels that they have seen in recent memory. People’s backyards are literally eroding away through the creek systems in our county because of this massive amount of stormwater that hits because of climate change causing such erratic weather,” he said. “It is sometimes easier to talk about the climate crisis when it’s 100 degrees outside for weeks on end, but I think that why we’re doing this work is not just about hotter days and global warming. It’s about the disruption to our climate at large.”

While many scientists say that the harm to the planet may be irreversible in as few as five years, Terry still has hope that this plan can help at least slow it down.

“The initial investments government and community wide hopefully will strengthen the feedback loop on an all of the above approach to reducing our GHG emissions,” he said. “I truly believe that these investments will help reduce costs for the tax payer and the average resident, create new high skilled jobs, and improve environmental health outcomes.”

The first community engagement event for the project will be on Oct. 14. Get more details here.

Madison Auchincloss is an editorial intern for Rough Draft Atlanta and a student at the University of Michigan.