Athens, Atlanta shine in new ranking of country’s top cities for solar power

    Atlanta has doubled its solar capacity in the last five years. This home in Atlanta was equipped with solar panels through a local solarize program. Photo contributed by Creative Solar

    Atlanta lags other major U.S. cities in total solar capacity but has ramped up its sun-powered energy production, according to a new report.

    Georgia’s capital city has doubled its solar capacity in the last five years, improving its standing in recent years on Environment Georgia’s annual ranking of cities. Athens, meanwhile, received an honorable mention in the environmental group’s report as a smaller community that outshines others.

    “It’s a long road we’re all on, but it takes a single step to at least begin the journey,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said Wednesday during a virtual press conference.

    Athens has offset about half of the energy used to power one of its waste treatment facilities by installing 600-kilowatt arrays. That project was funded through a local sales tax.

    The city is also looking to incorporate solar into a new mixed-income affordable housing project. And there’s a program in the works that will create a community energy fund for residents living in older, less efficient homes, with the funding coming from the franchise fees utilities pay to access public right-of-way.

    Girtz said the goal is to “drive down the community impact of dirty energy but also to make sure that we’re driving down an individual’s cost burden.”

    Atlanta has partnered with Cherry Street Energy to install panels on municipal buildings, such as recreation centers and fire stations initially. The program now includes 14 locations and counting.

    Taxpayers only pay for the solar electrons that the buildings consume, said Shelby Buso, the city’s chief sustainability officer.

    “We’ve shown other municipalities and institutions that this is possible,” Buso said.

    A 2015 state law that allows for third-party ownership of solar in Georgia is what opened the door for this kind of arrangement, known as a solar energy procurement agreement. Emory University also has such a contract for panels on its parking decks.

    “We’ve had some victories but need a lot more,” said Jennette Gayer, executive director of Environment Georgia.

    Gayer praised cities like Athens and Atlanta, which have set goals for a 100% clean energy plan, but said help is needed from state and federal leaders to encourage more widespread adoption of solar.

    As an example, she noted a federal tax credit for homeowners will phase out in 2022. And she questioned whether the 2015 state law could be expanded to include residences.

    “I think there’s a lot of different policies that we should be exploring in Georgia but we’re not yet,” Gayer said.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.