With city and state budgets stretched to their limits, families struggling to stay afloat, and one all-absorbing crisis on everyone’s mind, can clean energy planning proceed in a pandemic?
For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Charles Utley, Associate Director of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. With 50 years of grassroots organizing behind him, Utley spearheaded the campaign to commit Augusta, Ga., to 100% clean energy by 2050. Utley talks about his introduction to the zero waste movement, how he convinced the city commission to commit to 100%, and the effects of a global pandemic on city energy planning.
Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.
Founding a clean energy movement in anti-pollution advocacy
When Farrell asks Utley how the movement for a 100% renewable energy resolution got started, Utley takes it back to the 70s.
The Augusta neighborhood Utley grew up in, Hyde Park, was terribly polluted and did not receive public services, like water, streetlights, or a sewage system. Utley’s mother, Mary L. Utley, organized the community and spearheaded the fight for these basic necessities. By the mid 1970s, Utley’s mother had passed away and he took over the role of community president.
During that time, the neighboring (predominately white) community filed a class-action suit against Southern Wood Piedmont for the pollution their factory released into the area. Hyde Park residents were kept in the dark about the lawsuit. It wasn’t until 1991 that Hyde Park residents filed a similar class-action suit, which was dropped years later. Residents continued to organize and produce evidence of the ill-effects of regional pollution.
In 2016, the last residents of Hyde Park were ordered to leave. Despite the time that it took, Utley is proud that he and organizers were ultimately able to move their community to safer surroundings. All in all, 150 families had to make the move, says Utley.
Utley’s history of organizing for a safe, pollutant-free environment brought him to the idea of zero waste — which encompasses the pursuit of clean energy. He started reaching out to people outside of his neighborhood and began to work with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
Augusta County commissioners take the leap
Utley had many connections with city officials, due to his extensive history of organizing. He decided to approach a county commissioner with the zero waste idea. He then presented his idea, setting a goal of 100% clean energy by 2050, to the board.
The next step for Utley was gathering partners. To move the initiative forward, he worked with Augusta University and Paine College, which provided him some student interns. With these partners and some contacts from his Hyde Park organizing, including members of the board of education and the city engineering department, Utley had the momentum to get his resolution passed.
If we could pull [the Hyde Park relocation] together, we should be able to pull zero waste together.
In late 2018, the Augusta City Commission approved a resolution to set a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050. The city hopes to reach 80% renewable energy by 2030.
The clean energy transition gets stuck in the mud
Can a city’s pursuit of clean energy goals press on through a pandemic? Utley describes how Augusta’s timeline has been put on hold, for now. The city is still in the planning process and has its focus on departmental changes. Commissioners have asked Utley for more time to release a plan, in light of the global disaster.
Our project has for the most part been put on the back burner… So we’re kinda in mud and we’re just spinning our wheels for the time, but I hope they will grab a grip and we’ll be able to move forward.
Although the city is still working on an implementation plan, Utley describes initiatives that the board of education has already taken on. The city added solar panels to the construction of a new school, along with the most efficient windows.
Thanks to these upgrades, Utley says that the city is finally realizing the cost-savings of a clean energy transition. Considering the “astronomical” cost of Georgia Power’s nuclear energy, clean energy produced by the city is a win-win for the taxpayer.
Working with Georgia Power
Utley’s next goal for the city? Bring in young people. Georgia Power helps with education programs and provides scholarships for students. While Utley believes adults will be reluctant to change their ways, children can be taught about recycling and clean energy. By starting with educational programs in the schools, parents may eventually be brought in as well.
If the child is interested in it, you love your children, you’re going to help them out.
Meeting the needs of the community
A focus for Utley is providing relief for those that are “getting a double dose.” This means communities affected by their close proximity to a nuclear plant, whose community members work in unsafe conditions at the plant, and like all residents of Augusta, who pay steep prices for nuclear power.
Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, funded by Georgia Power, provides efficiency upgrades for these most affected communities. As Utley describes, this is done using a loan, but Blue Ridge often matches it with fundraising.
If we see a need, we try to take care of it.
“When the mask comes off,” says Utley, Blue Ridge needs help communicating with residents in the vicinity of nuclear plants and the employees of these plants. Right now, many of these stakeholders are cut off from modes of communication. Their scheduled in-person meeting is not happening and it is not going online, because of poor access to the internet.
Read an updated ILSR report on how Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America
Despite this and other setbacks, Utley remains optimistic that Augusta will reach its long-term goal. For others considering the pursuit of 100% clean energy, he poses this question:
Are we doing justice or an injustice to the future?
Utley asks that everyone looks to what they can do to improve the living condition of their surroundings. He believes everyone can contribute to their community.
… and if you make a commitment, stick to it.
See these ILSR resources for more behind the story:
- Read John Farrell’s proposal for a pandemic relief bill: 30 Million Solar Rooftops
For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.
Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.
This is the 21st episode of our special Voices of series, and episode 104 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.