Atlanta community resilience project is model for energy equity

Zip code 30314 in western Atlanta, home of the Bankhead neighborhood, is one of the most energy-intensive zip codes in the city. Residents pay five times more for electricity and gas than their neighbors in Buckhead in northern Atlanta do, despite having an average annual income that is five times less, according to a 2021 report from the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance.

The zip code also happens to be home to the Atlanta University Center (AUC), the world’s oldest and largest association of historically black colleges and universities, which includes Spelman College, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Clark Atlanta University. Morehouse College is the future location of a first of its kind resilience on campus that will be supported by a solar-powered micro network. In the event of a power outage on a grid scale, the suspension center is designed to operate on battery-stored solar energy, providing important resources for students and residents of the surrounding community.

Groundswell, a nonprofit organization focused on building community energy resilience, launched the project in late 2019 in partnership with AUC and Partnership for Southern Equity, a nonprofit organization in Atlanta that promotes racial equality and shared prosperity through policy and institutional action. Formally called Breaking Barriers, the initiative also includes the development of another independent community resilience center to be located in the Western Atlanta community, one that will also be powered by solar generation and backed by battery storage.

As a participating team in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Solar Energy Innovation Network, Breaking Barriers partners received technical support and facilitation from stakeholders from NREL, the US Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Georgia Power is also helping to develop the project.

People and organizations tend to think of resilience within their 4 walls … How do we get our neighbors in and understand what their needs and priorities are and do this together?

The project developers said the design and business plans for resilience centers and solar-powered micro-networks were completed in September, and they are in the process of raising funding for construction. Project developers aim to provide funding from tax investments, philanthropic support and innovative sources of mission-specific funding that are specifically available for clean energy projects.

“The opportunity with Breaking Barriers was to create this tangible expression of energy equity,” said Chandra Farley, founder of the Good Energy Project and former director of the Just Energy program in the Partnership for Southern Equity.

Uneven load

Energy equity is a fair distribution of benefits and burdens of energy production and consumption. In Atlanta, low-income residents face the fourth-highest energy cost as a percentage of their income in any city in the nation, and over 35 percent of black and Spanish households in Atlanta experience a high energy burden, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

According to Michelle Moore, CEO of Groundswell, in addition to easing this energy burden in emergencies, Breaking Barriers resilience centers are designed to serve as a model for the development of similar projects elsewhere, especially because of the project developers’ approach to bringing more key stakeholders, such as the state energy supply and members of the local community, to the table.

Because Georgia has a regulated energy market, Breaking Barriers organizers had to work closely with Georgia Power, the state’s primary power tool. “We were very grateful to have the tool at the table,” Moore said. “Their engineering team was critical to understanding how a resilience center that included solar and storage on a micro-network would function within the framework of the neighborhood’s supply infrastructure.”

Resilience centers are designed to serve communities, so from the beginning, the developers of Breaking Barriers tried to engage members of the Western Atlanta community in the project planning process.

“People and organizations tend to think of resilience within their four walls,” Moore said. “From the very beginning, the way the AUC approached this project with us was that the AUC is part of a wider community. How do we get our neighbors in and understand what their needs and priorities are, and do we do this together? ”

Farley and other organizers at the Partnership for Southern Equity played an integral role in helping the project get community buy-in and giving community members a seat at the table to provide input. Although COVID-19 thwarted the project organizers’ plans to host personal community meetings, they were still able to organize 17 neighborhood meetings over Zoom and gather over 200 attendees from the Western Atlanta community, according to Moore.

Community members were able to ask technical questions to NREL representatives and participate in a community vision process to decide which essential services they most needed at the Resilience Center. Based on the input of community members, the finished center will provide the community with up to eight hours of battery storage in the event of a power outage, access to water and bathroom, heating and cooling services, cooling and mobile phone charging services, among others.

A clear choice

The choice of AUC as the anchor institution for Breaking Barriers was clear to Farley from the outset, just as the choice of Arthur Frazier, director of facility management and services and co-chair of Sustainable Spelman, was an important partner. “[Spelman is] not just one of the greenest black colleges in the nation, they are one of the greenest campuses in the nation, ”Farley said.

With Frazier as advisor, Breaking Barriers project developers spent two months identifying potential locations on AUC’s combined campuses for a photovoltaic plant and settled on a parking deck on Morehouse College’s campus.

When faced with the technical challenge of creating a micro-network with multiple possible configurations, the team relied on NREL’s expertise to narrow its capabilities. Among the factors to consider were the campus’ interest in consuming at least some generated solar energy instead of exporting it all to the grid and the requirement that the system has full microgrid capacity, including being able to charge from the network and the photovoltaic system. the batteries when on the island.

Project developers have not yet completed micro-network design plans and are considering between three options for battery capacity: eight hours; 12 hours; or 24 hours. Twelve hours of backup power would require a battery with 400 kilowatts / 4,800 kilowatt-hours of storage capacity, according to project developers. An increase in the duration of the desired backup power corresponds to an increase in project costs, driven by the required battery capacity.

The concept of a university as a resilience hub for the surrounding community is a lesson that companies can use when considering the “S” in ESG, according to the organizers. “Think of yourself as a neighbor,” Moore said. “Ask yourself how can I be a good neighbor, not just how can I achieve my sustainability goals.”

“The question I get a lot from the corporate side is, ‘How do you work with society?’ as if it’s this mysterious thing, “Farley said.” We already do it in many different ways. Maybe you made a cleanup day with your community. Think of these people as people you could collaborate with on innovative projects such as [Breaking Barriers]. They can introduce you to the deeper neighborhood associations and community influencers to start having these conversations. “

At a time when extreme weather events threaten to cause widespread power outages and ruin millions of people’s lives, resilience centers with significant resources will become more important to the well – being of society. And as more companies begin to consider using microgrid technology to ensure the continuity of their own operations, there is a huge opportunity to expand the luxury of continuity and provide citizens with security in the neighborhoods of these companies.

When working with communities, “you will always be careful not to be extraction,” Farley said. “Always ask the question of who benefits and why.”

If all goes according to plan, construction will begin in 2022 and be completed in 2023.

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