Why Atlanta’s nearly tops in U.S. in having energy efficient buildings

Atlanta may be more eco-friendly than you thought. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranked Atlanta No. 4 in the nation. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

The best new feature of Atlanta’s iconic skyline is something no one can see.

It’s our disappearing carbon footprint.

Just in time for Earth Week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is out with its "Top Cities" list of metropolitan areas with the most ENERGY STAR certified commercial buildings. With an eyepopping total of 311 "STAR" buildings ranging from soaring skyscrapers to neighborhood schoolhouses, Atlanta ranked No. 4 and was the only Southern city to crack the top 25 (unless you count Texas, as Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston came in at No. 7 and 8 respectively).

That’s good news for Mayor Kasim Reed and a number of leading civic and business organizations that have invested a lot of energy of late in reducing energy and water consumption.

But it’s an even better development for everyone living or doing business in the city, Reed suggested.

“Atlanta is honored … to be recognized as a leader for showing the way forward for a more sustainable future,” the mayor said in a statement. “We are fully committed to working with local business leaders to reduce our carbon footprint to spend less on energy and to push toward a stronger local economy and healthier community for all of us.”

Indeed, coming in fourth isn’t just about having bragging rights over every other city except Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco (No.’s 1, 2 and 3 respectively). ENERGY STAR certified buildings, which are independently verified as performing better than at least 75 percent of similar buildings nationwide, achieve significant reductions in both their energy bills and their greenhouse gas emissions.

“In terms of public health, the main benefit is averting respiratory diseases like asthma and allergies,” said Megan O’Neil, an adviser in the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

When it comes to those lower bills, there’s the obvious, dollars-and-sense benefit:

“Money saved on energy bills can boost the bottom line and be reinvested” in the business or elsewhere, said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

There’s also the harder to quantify, yet no less important benefit that comes from gaining a reputation as an energy efficient city.

“These are things that can inform people’s decisions about where they want to live or move or start a business,” said Dr. Jairo Garcia, director of climate initiatives for the sustainability office. “There are generations now that are very, very environmentally concerned.”

None of this simply just happened. The 311 certified buildings stretch from downtown to Buckhead and range from an instantly identifiable structure like the Promenade in Midtown to the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School in Grant Park. The city formed a partnership with Central Atlanta Progress and also worked with the Midtown Alliance, Livable Buckhead, the Green Building Council and other influential organizations to hold eight outreach sessions with commercial building owners around the city. There was even a "walk-in day" where Southface, the Atlanta-based sustainable building nonprofit, offered to input the necessary certification data for building owners.

Last year, the Atlanta City Council unanimously passed the City of Atlanta’s Commercial Buildings Energy Efficiency Ordinance, which will result in a 50 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from commercial buildings by the year 2030. Atlanta’s already participating in another national program, the Better Buildings Challenge, with more than 100 million square feet of commercial building space pledged to cut its energy and water consumption by 20 percent by 2020.

“The mayor’s goal is for Atlanta to be a top tier city for sustainability, said Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, the city’s Director of Sustainability. “That will attract businesses and people to our city and help Atlanta continue to grow and thrive.”

And not just American businesses and people. At the Climate Change Summit held in Paris this past December, Benfield noted, “We were the only Southern city with a presence there. We were talking to international companies that were extremely interested in our sustainability ranking. In Europe, especially, there are many companies that place a high value on that.”

Atlanta plans on continuing to ride that positive momentum to even more energy efficient buildings , said Benfield, who issued a friendly warning to the No. 3 city on the EPA’s list:

“Watch out San Francisco!”

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