When you think of the American South, sustainability and environmental protection initiatives may not be the first thought that comes to mind.

Maybe it’s front porches, sweet tea and sweltering summers. We’ve still got all that, but in Chattanooga we’re working together to make strides in solar energy, green transportation, preserving the natural resources that make our region stellar for getting outdoors, and much more.

Let’s take a new look at sustainability in the South.

During the 1960s and '70s, many people thought of Chattanooga as foggy with pollution — certainly not green, either literally or figuratively. In 1969, the Federal Air Quality Report dubbed Chattanooga the dirtiest U.S. city.

That same year, the Chattanooga City Council enacted an air pollution control ordinance to set new air quality targets and regulate emissions. Area businesses spent $40 million to ensure the city reached air quality targets by 1972. Spoiler alert: as a city, we pulled it off. The Environmental Protection Agency began using Chattanooga’s approach as a national model

Over many decades, reinventing our future has become part of Chattanooga’s DNA. Our city offers a case study for what it takes to become a city dedicated to sustainability.

Some areas traditionally heavy in manufacturing have not been leaders when it comes to climate change and shifting to renewable energy, but our environmental impact is no longer something we can ignore. In Chattanooga, a critical mass of local business willpower, national expertise and funding, local policy shifts, scalable tech solutions and nonprofit involvement brought our city from “the dirtiest” in 1969 to being twice voted Outside magazine’s Best Town Ever.

Climate change resiliency in the South

Communities benefit from collaborating within their city and beyond as they prioritize sustainability. This year in Chattanooga, local sustainability nonprofit "green|spaces" launched an integrated community sustainability plan, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced a regional resiliency council of mayors and commissioners in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia.

The goal? Making Southern cities more resilient to changing climate — including improved emergency response, disaster prevention and resiliency planning support for businesses.

In 2016, Chattanooga committed to SolSmart, a Department of Energy (DOE) program recognizing cities, counties and regional organizations for making it faster, easier and more affordable to go solar. More recently, the City of Chattanooga unveiled its first solar project for a water and wastewater treatment facility: a 10-acre solar farm to power a portion of the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant.

As a city, Chattanooga has cut energy use by 30 percent since 2013, achieving the greatest energy-use-intensity savings out of the 25 participants in the DOE Better Buildings challenge.

Sustainable initiatives that preserve quality of place create an avenue for economic growth and talent retention across communities.

Examples in Chattanooga include green|spaces programs like Build it Green, green|light business certification, Green and Healthy Homes and Chattanooga Green Prix.

Another nonprofit agency, Thrive Regional Partnership, ignites responsible growth in the tristate Chattanooga region, believing economic growth and environmental preservation enhance one another. 

Impressive solar growth

National tax incentives and a pressing environmental need for energy diversification have made solar energy more accessible than ever before. The U.S. added 10.6 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2018, and recently cracked its 2-millionth installed solar system. 

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy projected in April this year that solar power will more than double across the South by 2022 from last year’s level. 

Solar initiatives have become a vital part of Chattanooga’s commitment to sustainability. The Chattanooga Airport, Volkswagen Chattanooga and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee collectively generate more than 15 megawatts of solar energy.

Soaring over the Chattanooga Airport by plane, visitors spot a field of reflective solar panels near the runway. Before landing, they may spy Volkswagen’s 33-acre solar farm six miles northeast of the airport. A few more miles west, utility leader EPB’s solar-share field sparkles only blocks away from the city’s charging station for its free electric-powered buses.

Businesses across the county have a unique opportunity to lead in sustainability, benefiting their communities and boosting business.

Volkswagen’s solar fields are Tennessee’s largest. Volkswagen’s original $1 billion Chattanooga investment became the first Platinum LEED-certified car plant in the world. In 2018, Volkswagen announced a Chattanooga plant expansion to build electric vehicles.

Major Chattanooga employer BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee will complete installation of 10,000 solar panels in summer 2019 at its Gold LEED-certified headquarters. The solar panels will offset an average of 25 percent of utility power and on peak production days will contribute back to the energy grid.

Tennessee Valley Authority, serving 80,000 square miles in the Southeast, expects to triple its solar portfolio by 2021 as utility-scale solar becomes more cost-effective.

Solar panels and electric vehicles represent a larger story of people who prioritize sustainability as they manage utilities, businesses, government and nonprofits in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

The Chattanooga example

Chambers of commerce are positioned to initiate large-scale endeavors through collaborative leadership. Chattanooga’s Velocity2040 initiative collated the responses of thousands of Chattanooga residents asked what they want their community to look like in 20 years. The resulting vision prioritizes sustainability and smart growth through education excellence, economic mobility, inclusion and collaboration.

Velocity2040 includes a “20 minutes or less” goal to provide the regional community with green transportation to get from point A to B in less than 20 minutes. The GreenTrips initiative addresses this through a $600,000, three-year program encouraging more efficient transportation through education, incentives, carpooling, cycling and telecommuting.  

It takes serious investment, planning and communication to align resources. The more community members at the table, the more everyone can help create an oasis of sustainability.

Every time Chattanoogans fly home and glimpse the Chattanooga Airport’s solar fields, they see a visual representation of the region’s resiliency. If Chattanooga can turn things around, fellow communities in the Southeast and beyond can too.

Together, we’re building a sustainable future for businesses and people to thrive.


Christy Gillenwater is president and CEO of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.