For Michael Songster, an Athens home builder, sustainability is more than just an interest. It’s about combating climate change, securing the future for his family and protecting the outdoor world he loves.
Songster has lived in Athens since 1989 and specializes in building homes with solar panels and heavy insulation. He’s a founding member of 100% Athens, an advocacy group that helped push the Athens-Clarke County government to adopt a plan to shift entirely to renewable energy.
“I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I’ve gotten to be old enough to see places change over time. You can kind of identify the change within your own lifetime. … I’d hate to lose all those places completely.”
—Michael Songster, member of 100% Athens
In May 2019, the county commission made the grand commitment to shift Athens’s energy use to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and all renewable energy by 2050.
With less than 15 years until the deadline for renewable electricity, the county government and community have a monumental task ahead of them.
Nearly two years after adopting the plan, the county is still developing a way to meet its green goals. The ACC Sustainability Office is holding virtual public town hall meetings throughout April to gauge community responses on how to implement renewable energy in the community.
Songster said the plan is ambitious, but he’s optimistic about what the county can achieve within its time frame.
“If you look back 15 years in the past and how far we’ve come on electric vehicle technology and the affordability of solar … I think that 15 years is actually a long time in this sort of energy technology world,” Songster said.
However, he said the commitment isn’t something Athens can do alone. He said Athens will need the support of state leaders, and the commitment will signal to them renewable energy is important to Georgia’s communities.
ACC Sustainability Officer Mike Wharton acknowledged the plan is unprecedented, and there will likely be some snags in its implementation. Part of the county’s commitment is to produce at least 60% of its renewable energy locally, but Wharton said the county’s capacity for solar panels is limited.
“Not every roof could handle solar,” Wharton said. “They aren’t oriented in the right place, they might have trees that are overhanging. … Our goal would be that we would have 40% of our residential housing and businesses with solar capacity on them.”
He said the office’s immediate focus is moving county properties to renewable energy, since private property owners may be hesitant to make the switch.
Setting an example
Carol Myers, ACC’s District 8 commissioner and a member of 100% Athens, said the county plans to lead by example while also looking into ways to push the private sector and the broader community toward renewable energy. She said the county has considered revising building codes to ensure they’re in line with sustainability goals and adding more electric vehicle charging stations, but she said the county is “working on our own house first.”
“The incentives I think are more likely to come from Washington,” Myers said. “Right now, we have a new president whose goals for climate change match up really well with the Athens 100% renewable goals.”
In addition to President Joe Biden’s support for clean energy, Georgia has become a haven for renewable energy production. In 2020, the state government offered up to 50% reimbursement for cities, counties and public schools to cover the cost of installing solar panels. In 2019, the largest solar panel plant in America opened in Dalton.
The state’s support has helped the county move toward installing clean energy on its properties. On April 6, the ACC Commission passed a plan to install solar panels on the public library. According to the legislation, half of the project’s cost will be covered by a grant from Georgia Public Libraries.
But shifting county-owned buildings alone to renewable energy was never the commission’s plan. A much larger push will be necessary to reach the goal of shifting the whole community to renewable electricity in less than two decades.
Amy Bramblett, an Athens resident since the 1980s, hired Songster to build her home to maximize its energy efficiency. She said the county’s goal seems out of reach, but that’s what drives innovation in sustainability.
“[Without lofty goals] there wouldn’t be any reason to figure out new and better ways of doing things. We could just keep doing things the way that we’re doing, except for change a few light bulbs, but it’s going to take a lot more than that.”
—Amy Bramblett, Athens resident
Bramblett said people have a civic responsibility to their communities and to the world to live sustainably. She said she doesn’t want to “leave a big mess” for her daughter and future generations to clean up. Myers said for her, combating climate change is “really not a choice.”
“I have two daughters. I now have two grandchildren. It’s just unconscionable not to be thinking about the world that they’re going to be coming into,” she said.