published Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Chattanooga seeks prize for energy efficiency

Chattanooga has come a long way from its filthy past by replacing industrial scars with greenspace and outdoor attractions, and now officials are looking to curb the city's energy consumption.

Tennessee ranks 20th in the nation for per capita energy usage, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The Volunteer State consumes 344 million Btu per person a year, compared to the national average of 320 million Btu. Those rankings include consumption of natural gas, electricity, coal and other sources.

To change that, a local nonprofit, with the aid of the city, area utilities -- and anyone else who wants to help -- is making a plan to make Chattanooga as a community more energy efficient and sustainable. And if the plan is good enough, Georgetown University may give the group $5 million to put it into action.

Michael Walton, executive director of green|spaces, a nonprofit that focuses on communitywide sustainability, said Chattanooga has been included in the Georgetown University Energy Prize contest.

The contest is calling on local communities throughout the nation to make innovative, replicable, scalable and continual reductions in the amount of energy residents use.

The plan will have to address long-term energy efficiency and show effectiveness and sustainability over two years.

Plans will be judged based on reductions in per capita energy usage; cooperation among utilities, businesses and governments; public education about sustainability; and promotion of efficiency plans.

"That's what we want to do is get all the best ideas in Chattanooga -- the big ideas. How to reduce per capita energy and improve quality of life in a big way," he said.

Chattanooga is in a good position to win, Walton asserts.

"We have a set of tools that others don't. Chattanooga is an environmental comeback story," Walton said. "We have a culture here that values the outdoors and the environment for what it gives to our city. We've got fiber optics, we've got a smart grid, but we really haven't leveraged them yet."

If Chattanooga comes up with a great plan, it could make it to the semi-finals next year.

Francis Slakey, director of the prize program for Georgetown, said so far Chattanooga is up against 50 other cities.

Applications will be taken for the next three months, and any city with 5,000 to 250,000 people can join. That means there are about 8,892 eligible communities, according to Georgetown.

Slakey said many people don't think about how much energy they use each day, month or year, but most people can understand energy savings.

"On average, the typical homeowner can reduce the cost of their utility bill by 20 percent. That's with simple stuff, caulking windows, putting in a smart thermostat," he said. "If a city gets really motivated and encourages people to go deeper, with retrofits, now you are talking as much as 50 percent reductions."

In a letter to Georgetown, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Chattanooga's environmental reformation has been a great success, but there is still more for the city to do.

"Our area, however, still consumes more energy per capita than other areas across the country. Through green|spaces, we will work with stakeholders in our community to develop the same kind of innovative approaches which brought us from being one of the dirtiest cities in the country to being one of the most livable," he wrote.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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