Georgia has officially joined the nationwide trend toward clean energy, with cities like Athens, Clarkston, and Savannah setting ambitious goals for 2050. Second only to Atlanta, the state’s earliest adopter of clean energy commitments is the town of Augusta, home of fabled Masters Golf Tournament, near the border of South Carolina. In September 2018, a grassroots, community-led initiative that began in the 1970s finally came to fruition, with the Augusta City Commission approving a resolution for 100% renewable energy by 2050. The move was spearheaded by Augusta native Reverend Charles Utley, who brought together several organizations to drive the resolution across the finish line, including the Augusta Board of Education, Augusta University, Paine College, and the city engineering department.
“I don’t take any credit for it, put it that way. I always say, I have to be led by the spirit to know what to do,” Reverend Utley told us in a recent phone interview. Two years after the historic achievement, he’s just as busy as ever, ensuring clear communication between an ever-growing group of national, state, municipal, and community partners, including the Neighborhood Alliance in Augusta — an association of 32 communities. Utley takes responsibility for the association’s environmental goals, communicating with developers and commissioners, keeping an eye on planning, zoning, and making sure waste is properly handled at the landfill. In all of these capacities, Utley says, “The only question I have for all of them is what are you producing, is it energy efficient and does it interfere with our climate?”
It’s a good question too, especially in a town with a complicated environmental history. Utley grew up in Hyde Park, a neighborhood contaminated by industrial waste, with no access to public services. Utley recounts that his mother, Mary L. Utley, founded the Hyde Park and Aragon Park Improvement Committee, “to fight for running water, and sewers and lights and paved streets, basic necessities of life.” After Utley’s mother passed away, he took on the work, “at the end of the day, we were able to get Hyde Park as a relocated neighborhood, we got a brownfield, the neighbors moved out. We wrote the grant and it became the only grant at the time to be approved by the EPA to go to a community from a grassroots organization,” Utley explained. Despite taking all of these efforts on, he couldn’t do it alone. Several people were involved in the transformation of Hyde Park from toxic neighborhood to brownfield and in the safe exodus of its residents, including Bob Young who left his role as Mayor of Augusta to serve as Director of U.S. Dept Housing and Urban Development for the Atlanta Region under President George W. Bush.
Augusta has cleaned up its act from the Hyde Park days, and now Utley is focused on coordinating collaborations with over ten different state and national organizations, including Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League of which he is Associate Director. How does he keep it all together? “I try to do one thing at a time.” He’s currently keeping pace with the Augusta Transit Authority and the Georgia Department of Transportation’s plans, which could include a high-speed rail system connecting Aiken SC, Augusta, Atlanta, and Macon, Georgia. In the short term, he plans to listen in on the city’s Technical Coordinating Committee meeting this week, “to get some more information on why we’re going back to more diesel buses,” he added, ”I spoke with the city on the new transit [plans] and I’m kind of disappointed. I understand they were getting ready to order buses for next year, but they were not electric.”
Utley’s success as a community leader comes from paying close attention to the inner workings of the city, “to make sure that we are still in cohesion with the things that we want to implement. Of course it takes money to do those things, so we have to get the community involved” suggested Utley. He’s looking at ways the city can save money too, working closely with the city engineering department and the water department. “I’ve learned that the waste treatment facility is one of the most expensive operating things in the city. We’re trying to come up with ways to make it a better system,” Utley explained.
The Augusta Board of Education shared a vision for a better system too, which is why they got involved. They’re working on energy efficiency upgrades throughout their buildings and education programs to teach students the basics of recycling and how to save energy. Utley says, “I was very pleased to see at least two, maybe a third (building), with solar panels on the back of the school.” He went on to explain, “They have buses and we want those buses to be eventually changed to electric.”
These objectives are starting to be within reach, as Augusta now has a “Living Green” committee responsible for identifying and sponsoring initiatives that inspire elected officials, government employees, and citizens to look for ways to conserve resources. The city has set a short term goal of 80% renewable energy by 2030. They plan to achieve that by embracing “a more environmentally-conscious perspective,” and encouraging opportunities in tech-intensive areas like printing, power consumption, process efficiency, and office automation, focusing on fuel consumption, waste management, and pollution, and encouraging the basics like the recycling of plastic bottles, motor oil, paper, and aluminum cans. Utley says, “That’s kinda the way we’ve been going at it, kinda pulling it all together, but piece by piece.”
Though the interests of multiple groups is a lot to balance, Utley’s found a way, “The one thing we can all do is organize to better improve our communities for all and make sure that everyone has equal opportunity through the system to be able to achieve those goals that they desire to achieve in their communities, in their homes and in their own lives.” Sounds like a good clean plan for Georgia and for all of us.