“Everything’s greater in Decatur,” says the City of Decatur, Ga., motto. The maxim represents a city that prides itself on walkability, good schools, vibrant small businesses, community collaboration and pioneering innovation. But like many cities around the country, Decatur, Ga., grapples with how to best integrate climate change solutions into practicable policy as the area warms. Residents experienced an average of 20 days above 95 °F in the last 30 years and are expected to see that number increase to more than 90 days by 2050.
This story is about how data informed community engagement helped Decatur develop and approve a Clean Energy Plan. The plan details pathways to eliminating all its government and community carbon emissions by 2035, and the remaining community uses, such as home electricity use and transportation, by 2050.
“The vision for Decatur is to do its part in the clean energy transition, support our peer communities in the transition, come together for systemic grid level change, and create a healthier, more resilient, equitable and more affordable community,” says David Nifong, Energy and Sustainability Manager, City of Decatur. “It will definitely require all of us.”
The city needed a plan grounded in data and backed by community buy-in to make the vision a reality. That’s where Southface Institute and Greenlink Analytics’ partnership launched this reality. Greenlink utilized their computer modeling tool, Advanced Clean Energy Scenario (ACES), to analyze Decatur’s building stock, energy fuel mix, greenhouse gas inventory, and means of transportation and forecast changes in energy through 2050. Southface then presented the data through roundtables, surveys, stakeholder interviews, and a two-day in-person charrette (integrated planning session) to drum up enduring support.
“The essential component is that enduring support,” says Robert Reed, advisor for Southface Institute. “Gather a set of experts behind a wall and they could come up with the most expeditious solution to reducing emissions,” he continues, “But what happened instead is that through community we heard that the social impact of the plan needed to be weighed heavily and placed at the forefront.”
Hearing from the community changed the trajectory of Decatur’s plan. Feedback guided the city toward a scenario entitled Social and Local Impact: a pathway that leads to the highest public health and job benefits. The "Social and Local Impact Scenario" calls for a cumulative investment of $57 million in clean energy over the period of the goal, reaping cumulative benefits of $520 million and avoiding nearly 1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.
Why is this important? In 2020, the median income for a white household in Decatur was about 480% greater than the median income for Black households. This disparity extends to levels of education and the number of households that rely on nutrition assistance, meaning that when a community starts to find savings in energy bills, it means the families who couldn’t afford their electricity or utility bills are now able to pay their bills and the extra money can now go towards education, food and other basic necessities.
In summary, community engagement helps build healthier neighborhoods from the very foundation because they are able to point out their needs in a way that targets systemic repair and long term solutions.
The City of Decatur’s Clean Energy Plan was unanimously adopted in September 2022.
Photos courtesy of City of Decatur, Ga.