Why buildings are at the center of Atlanta’s fight vs. climate change

City sustainability chief Chandra Farley wants to boost an energy tracking program and tap federal funds to upgrade city properties
Solar panels on the roof of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation And Aquatic Center shot on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Solar panels on the roof of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recreation And Aquatic Center shot on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Amid the daunting task of making Atlanta more resilient in the face of a warming planet, Chandra Farley sees real estate as the city’s biggest opportunity.

Office towers. Malls. City buildings. Warehouses and factories. Hotels. Apartments. Houses. Each consumes energy. Many do so inefficiently. Natural gas and electricity consumption by buildings combined are Atlanta’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, the city says.

Encouraging and assisting home and building owners to consume less is one of the quickest ways for the city to move the needle on fighting climate change, said Farley, Atlanta’s new chief sustainability officer. Greater efficiency can also save residents and businesses money.

Farley, an energy consultant by trade, joined Mayor Andre Dickens’ cabinet last fall. She took over a department that won national acclaim since its founding about 15 years ago, but had lost momentum, influence and three-quarters of its staff since its heyday under former Mayor Kasim Reed, who left office in 2018.

Farley also enters her role as billions of dollars in federal money has been approved to address climate change. Those federal dollars present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in making Atlanta more resilient and equitable in the face of rising temperatures.

Now, half a year into her tenure, Farley’s office is staffing up and laying the groundwork to take advantage of that money, she said. Farley is doing so by prioritizing areas — like building efficiency — where she says her office can have the greatest influence.

“Our climate is changing — we can do our best to mitigate; we can do our best to adapt,” Farley said. “We need to be making sure that we are taking every opportunity to do that and that we are listening to the communities that are most impacted by high energy bills, by neighborhoods that are hotter than their neighbors, about how to prioritize the steps that we take.”

Funding from the federal bipartisan infrastructure law and the Democrats’ signature climate and health bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, will flow through offices like Farley’s in cities and states across the country.

The federal government hasn’t issued rules for how all those funds will be allocated and spent. But Farley said she is focused on allocations coming directly to the city that could help it upgrade city-owned or operated properties. The deadline for the first step in applying for those funds is April 28.

Chandra Farley is the city of Atlanta's chief sustainability officer. She is shown here at Atlanta City Hall, Tuesday, February 7, 2023, in Atlanta. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

“City of Atlanta’s got to get its own house in order” by setting an example for the private sector, she said. That means making sure city buildings are compliant with local ordinances and expanding the city’s solar program, which currently has panels on more than 20 properties.

Farley also wants to boost enforcement of existing sustainable building and energy tracking ordinances for the private commercial sector. The recent federal legislation also included a slew of incentives for homeowners, landlords and developers to invest in building efficiency and renewable energy. Commercial properties can also apply for green financing through a different city agency, Invest Atlanta.

Tracking energy use

In many ways, Farley’s mission to tackle building efficiency harkens back to one of the department’s biggest wins.

In 2015, Atlanta won praise from the U.S. Green Building Council as the first city in the Southeast to require all city-owned buildings and large commercial buildings to track, report and audit their energy use.

This tracking is known as energy benchmarking. Property owners or managers must report their energy use, which is then compared to that of other, similar properties to measure performance. The idea is that the information can be used to identify efficiencies, guide policy or, at the very least, put pressure on property owners to keep up with their peers.

Compliance with the city’s benchmarking law has been low and has fluctuated over the years, according to data provided by the city. In 2022, a record 757 properties out of an estimated 2,400 completed their annual benchmarking reports — but that still only represents a compliance rate of about 30%.

Construction workers work next to Ponce City Market with Bank of America Plaza seen in the background during an overcast day on Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Atlanta. (Chris Day/Christopher.Day@ajc.com)

Credit: Chris Day

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Credit: Chris Day

Farley said she wants to spend the next year reminding property owners about their obligations under the benchmarking ordinance while bringing city buildings into compliance before turning to more coercive methods.

“We actually have the ability to fine people for noncompliance — that’s never been happening,” Farley said. “I would prefer not to make money from people not complying with our benchmarking ordinance.”

The Atlanta benchmarking ordinance was not created without controversy. An unsuccessful push in the state Legislature at the time would have blocked it on grounds it violated trade secrets.

Developer Jamestown Properties, which owns Ponce City Market, was among the businesses that came out in favor of benchmarking when it was first proposed. Becca Timms, the company’s director of environmental, social and governance, said such requirements have become common across the country.

January 27, 2022 Atlanta - Exterior of Ponce City Market from Beltline on Thursday, January 27, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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Timms said the ordinance wasn’t a burden.

“Our investors, our tenants — they expect that we know how our buildings are performing and how much energy they’re consuming,” she said.

Matt Cox, now the CEO of Greenlink Analytics, oversaw the development of the benchmarking program when he worked for the city in 2015. He spent significant time and effort assembling an accurate list of properties and then set up a help desk staffed by himself and three college students to answer questions and help owners submit their data.

He said if the city wants to enforce the benchmarking rule, or to take advantage of the avalanche of climate funding coming from the federal government, it’s going to have to invest more in Farley’s office.

“They’re really not at the same level of capacity that they have been historically,” Cox said. “I think the city largely has the authorities that it needs to get started on a lot of this ... but we need everybody rowing in the same direction.”

‘Help Atlanta meet its goals’

Daniel Matisoff, an applied economist at Georgia Tech who studies carbon strategy, said merely collecting information isn’t enough — it needs to be highly visible.

Atlanta recently released an interactive map showing buildings’ benchmarking status. Matisoff said that’s a start, but pointed to places like Portland that require energy scores to be disclosed in residential real estate sales as something Atlanta could emulate.

“I don’t know if the marketplace is going to respond something that is displayed by the city on a website, but I know that the marketplace is not going to respond if the information is never made public,” Matisoff said.

Other cities require more. New York City, for example, recently introduced strict, enforceable limits on buildings’ emissions and steep fines for violators. Atlanta’s ordinance is focused on transparency and does not require buildings to meet certain standards.

Solar panels on the roof of Atlanta fire station 18 in Kirkwood shot on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

In 2017, City Council approved a resolution setting an ambitious goal of achieving 100% clean energy for city operations by 2025 and for all Atlantans by 2035. The resolution doesn’t carry the force of law, and Atlanta can’t reach that goal on its own.

Georgia Power, which provides electricity to the city, is a private, investor-owned company regulated by the Public Service Commission. The utility has been widely criticized, including by City Hall, over the pace of its transition to renewables, including its resistance to policies advocates say would expand rooftop solar.

Still, Matisoff said, “the city of Atlanta is a large customer.”

“There is room for negotiation and to carve out a plan that will help Atlanta meet its goals.” In the meantime, he said, Atlanta can do its part.

“The city has way more direct control over, say, building energy codes than it does the source of energy supply,” he said. “I think that they can make some progress.”

Atlanta’s mixed record

Despite a public commitment to energy efficiency and building upgrades, the city has a mixed record when it comes to follow-through.

In 2021, the city announced it would allocate $3.5 million in COVID-19 relief funds to weatherize low-income residents’ homes through a program run out of the city’s sustainability office. The program, called WeatheRise ATL, was supposed to commence no later than Sept. 30, 2021. But WeatheRise ATL saw its budget reduced by more than $1 million and has yet to get off the ground.

City officials, including Farley, have characterized these budget changes as “reallocations” rather than cuts. Some of the aid money was shifted to support the relocation of residents from the troubled Forest Cove apartment complex.

In December, city communications staff said the weatherization program was in the “initial design phase.” Farley provided another update in recent days.

In short, she said the city was concerned the program could run afoul of the “gratuities clause.” That’s a part of the Georgia Constitution that forbids governments from giving away something without equal value in return.

“[W]e have shifted the program to be run by a group of nonprofits instead of the City,” she wrote in an email. “Our goal is to launch the program via a donation agreement through legislation this year.”

In the meantime, Farley said she’s meeting with community groups to identify additional federal funding and coordinating across city departments, including through the city’s revived Clean Energy Advisory Board.

“The climate conversation has to become more super hyperlocal,” Farley said. “Literally, it is a planetary emergency, and that can be too big, you know? But when you talk about job opportunities, when you talk about business development opportunities, when you talk about quality of life opportunities, all of those things are climate action.”

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/