Sustainable Georgia

Moderated by Rick Badie

We hear the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable” used interchangeably in private and public sectors. What, exactly, do they mean to our region’s well-being? The lead column highlights area efforts to create economic practices that balance and renew the environment and its resources. The companion essay implores companies and organizations to use better available data in their green initiatives. The third write-up offers consumer tips on residential solar energy.

Green practices drive growth

By George Bandy Jr.

The richly-hued azaleas popping out over Georgia remind us we’re fortunate to live in a state blessed by natural beauty. And if you look beneath those seas of pink, purple and white magnificence, you’ll see they are made possible by an intricate green network of leaves, stems and roots that make them outstanding dependable performers, year after year.

Georgia has a green network, too, an active group of citizens, companies and civic leaders who understand that green infrastructure is how we will be solid performers year after year as well and continue to earn our reputation as a great place to live, work and play. It’s something I hope our economic development leaders underscore as they entertain the world’s corporate elite at the Masters in Augusta this week.

Ray Anderson, legendary CEO of LaGrange-based Interface, started preaching that gospel 25 years ago. He blazed the trail for a groundswell of leaders who understand that in a resource-constrained environment there lies environmental and economic opportunity. It just requires us to be smarter about how we construct and fit our buildings, manufacture products, power our energy grid and develop the kind of policies that drives job growth and innovation without sacrificing our health, comfort and well-being.

The result is that we are finally beginning to take a place as a national leader in sustainability.

Certainly the business community has stepped up. Georgia’s carpet industry is the poster child for reuse and recycle, lowering (and in some cases eliminating altogether) the volatile organic compounds that have negative impact on our health.

We have Georgia companies that manufacture the latest water-saving plumbing fixtures. We have Fortune 500 companies with headquarters here that stock the most sustainable products on their shelves. We have corporations large and small that are setting global sustainability standards for their supply chains and using the LEED green building program to provide cost-efficient, high-performing assets in their real estate portfolios and spaces for their employees and customers filled with daylight and fresher, cleaner air.

Across every sector, Georgia is a participant in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge. The U.S. Green Building Council recently noted that we’re No. 8 in the country in terms of the opportunity Georgia citizens have to experience healthy, high-performing LEED offices, schools, stores or sports facilities.

From the Riverkeepers to Southface, from PATH to the Atlanta Beltline, from the advanced work in building science at Georgia Tech to UGA’s environmental ecology research, we have advocates and activists making sure the quality of life for our citizens is accounted for and advanced, paired with decision-making that gives equal weight to job growth and environmental impact.

The leadership of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and his administration should get special kudos. Dense urban areas have starkly different challenges and opportunities than other Main Street communities. That’s why mayors across the country are vanguards of sustainable policymaking. Atlanta has led by example through its commitment to energy and water efficiency, leading nationally in the Better Buildings Challenge and ranking third nationally in Energy Star-certified buildings. The ripple effect of that leadership is underscored by the fact there are nearly 2,000 buildings and homes using LEED in the Atlanta MSA.

I take a lot of pride in the fact that Georgia’s public, private, academic and non-governmental network is rich with leaders who understand that there’s huge economic development opportunity in being a green leader.

As a dad, it’s the results of that effort – cleaner air, abundant energy and water and a healthier, greener Georgia for our kids and grandkids and that’s what matters to me most of all.

George Bandy Jr., immediate past chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, is vice president of sustainability for Interface.

Better data drives better green policy

By Ory Zik

Imagine sitting in the executive chair about to make a critical decision, while a team of colleagues hurls financial information at you. It’s a stressful time, but at least the numbers are familiar. They are measured in dollars.

Now, envision being in that position and being informed about sustainability efforts and progress. Now the statistics are presented in unfamiliar and disparate units: carbon footprint in tons of CO2 equivalent, water footprint in gallons of water, energy efficiency performance by kilowatt-hours and the list goes on.

While these numbers are valuable in specific domains and in reference to specific locations, they do very little as decision support for executives who must prioritize where to focus efforts. Indeed, the electrical utility sells electricity by the kilowatt-hour. The water utility charges by the gallon. For them, measuring electricity by the kilowatt-hour and water by the gallon makes perfect sense.But how does it serve a leader concerned with improving overall sustainability?

For that person, a kilowatt-hour from coal is different from a kilowatt-hour from solar and a gallon of water from a water-stressed reservoir is not equal to a gallon of water from a rain-blessed watershed. In the case of our environmental impact, sustainability, risks and resiliency, we need two things: good data and a simple way to interpret the data.

Today environmental sustainability uses enormous datasets that make it a Big Data problem. But unlike other domains, it is coupled with a big interpretation challenge. Big Data refers to the ability to accumulate, organize and interpret unstructured data.

Today’s data sets can hold petabytes of data in one single set. To put that into context, one petabyte is able to hold 500 billion pages of standard printed text. Environmental information concerns inputs such as satellite images of water assets, grid efficiency and power plant emissions for electricity, coupled with the performance of established and new technologies such as advanced materials, new desalination membranes and power electronics.

What can decision-makers do to avoid being lost in a complex sea of information?

The first step is to access the best available data. Take for example the U.S. electricity grid, a hugely complex system but a critical one in terms of the sustainability and resiliency of any organization. Yet, the current state of the art (called eGRID) divides the U.S. grid into only 24 regions and provides an annual update of the electricity generated in those regions. This model represents about 20,000 power plants. This is the quality of information provided for sustainability decisions while power traders have access to minute-by-minute data with much richer geographic quality than eGRID provides.

Similarly, organizations trying to quantify their water risks use archaic footprint information and rarely use the nearly real-time United States Geological Survey measurements of thousands of watersheds. These are just two of the many examples of the poor data currently used by decision-makers.

Once better data is collected, any organization’s performance can be analyzed on a location by location basis, as well as at the organizational level. Then, the next step is to benchmark the organization relative to others in the sector and benchmark each location within the organization against each other. In order to do an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison between organizations and/or locations, you can compare by looking at the energy used in that organization or location, expressed in energy units that account for the regional resource supply and infrastructure.

From there, best practices and advanced technologies can be selected and deployed, optimized for needs at one location, performance across locations, and competitive advantage. This approach merges simplicity and accuracy into resource decision-making for companies, cities and society.

Dr. Ory Zik is the vice president of analytics for Boston-based Lux Research.

Making informed solar choices

By Stan Wise

The ink isn’t dry on legislation making it easier to finance solar systems for Georgia consumers and already unscrupulous marketers are misleading consumers with offers to go solar and “eliminate” the electric bill.

If Georgia’s experience is anything like California, Arizona or even Louisiana, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs will soon be busy with complaints of deceptive marketing. Rest assured, solar consumers will still get an electric bill. And when you consider all capital and finance costs, solar isn’t cheaper than residential and small commercial electric rates offered by Georgia utilities.

Beware of sales gimmicks that predict electric rates will rise 4 to 6 percent annually. Over the last 25 years, the average annual increase has been less than 2 percent. Ask for a good faith estimate of the kilowatt hours to be delivered by the system over time. Request plain language explanations of pricing terms over the life of the contract, warranties and operation and maintenance costs and responsibilities. The lowest-cost option for solar arrays may not even be a lease, but paying cash or using a home equity loan and taking the 30 percent federal tax credit oneself.

Before investing in a solar battery back-up system at $5,000 to $10,000 every 10 years or so, be sure to weigh that cost against practical investments in non-perishable foods and other goods necessary to ride out those rare power outages. If backup power is necessary, a natural gas standby generator is likely more cost effective.

Even if cost calculations suggest you will break even in 15 to 20 years, it may not be a good idea to install solar if you may move before then. Selling a home with a solar array may be a selling point in some parts of California, but here in Georgia it can be a liability that harms resale value.

Some developments may require that solar arrays not be visible from the road. Considering that arrays perform best when facing south, this may limit your options.

Solar customers must be connected to the grid for backup power and to sell excess power back to the system, which means they still need power plants and all the network infrastructure necessary to serve the home 24 hours a day. However, residential solar customers do not pay all these fixed costs.

In California, a 2013 study estimates that rooftop solar has caused a $1.2 billion cost shift onto non-solar customers because solar customers pay about 19 percent less than what it costs the utility to serve them. Georgia should consider restructuring the fixed infrastructure costs into a demand component on residential customer bills so that everyone who uses the grid pays their fair share of the costs.

Before investing a large amount of money in a home solar system, have an energy audit performed on your home to see if you can save energy costs every month. As consumer protections develop, technology improves and prices decline, solar energy shows great promise under the right application.

Stan Wise is a Georgia Public Service Commissioner.

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