Metro Nashville begins decades-long commitment to clean energy

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Metro Nashville is moving forward with new green initiatives despite the fact that it will be operating under a tight budget until at least the next fiscal year.

In December, Mayor John Cooper’s administration unveiled a plan to promote sustainability at government and city levels.

Cooper’s plan follows a unanimous vote at the beginning of June, with which Metro Nashville Council passed legislation pledging to incorporate sustainable energy practices throughout the Metro government over the next three decades.

The trio of ordinances, sponsored by District 19 Council Member Freddie O’Connell and cosponsored by 14 other council members, positions the local government to retrofit new buildings with sustainable design standards, power all city facilities with 100% renewable energy by 2041 and use only zero-emission vehicles by 2050.

Cooper’s plan also spurred the creation of a sustainability advisory board that will review environmental measures as they are introduced by council members.

“The work of environmental justice is not easy,” Cooper said at the board’s introductory meeting Jan. 9. “The path before us holds many challenges, including financial constraints and differing ideologies, but these challenges are worth our best efforts for the sake of our children and the future of everyone here in Nashville.”

Building off the ordinances approved in June, Cooper’s plan includes proposals to install a solar energy system on the roof of the Metro Courthouse, create an energy savings program for government facilities, prioritize energy-efficient building standards and support legislation to protect and grow the city’s tree canopy.

While city officials do not have a firm timeline for the installation of solar panels at Metro Courthouse, other projects, such as planting 500,000 trees by 2050 and achieving LEED certification for city buildings, are already underway. Buildings certified by LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, use less energy and water and create less waste, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that awards LEED certifications.

Cooper also joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy in December, per an agreement previously signed by former Mayors Megan Barry and David Briley, making Nashville one of around 100 cities in a coalition committed to reducing emissions on a local level.

“In the past, Metro government has done excellent work with considering ideas and proposals to tackle these changes, and some of these challenges we need to address threaten our quality of life,” Cooper said. “It’s only with the community’s support that we’re going to be able to have these kinds of dramatic changes.”

Building off past work

While drafting Cooper’s sustainability plan, his administration considered the recommendations made in 2017 by Livable Nashville, a committee formed a year earlier to offer insight into potential environmental practices, according to Mary Beth Ikard, the mayor’s transportation and sustainability manager.

The report outlines 25 recommendations, ranging from recycling and waste reduction to mobility and natural resources. Since then, Ikard said, the city has already implemented some of the group’s recommendations, including establishing plans to recycle almost all of the city’s trash and to open a solar park in northeast Nashville.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and create a large budget for [Cooper’s plan] when we have the Livable Nashville work from last term,” Ikard said. “That set of recommendations didn’t just sit on a shelf; we’ve done a lot out of that plan.”

Ikard said she is encouraging the new advisory board to consider advocating for the remaining goals outlined in Livable Nashville and to develop new policies for consideration.

“The Livable Nashville recommendations went pretty far, but we can go further,” Ikard said.

Combating ‘task force fatigue’

Prior to announcing the new advisory board, Director of Legislative Affairs Mike Jameson said several staff members in the mayor’s office, himself included, had concerns that creating a new group dedicated to exploring these initiatives would contribute to “task force fatigue.”

“Every time there’s a problem, you throw a task force at it and consider it progress,” Jameson said. “The task force studies it for a year, the public forgets about it, and then, no progress is made. That was weighing heavily on our minds when making [climate-related] recommendations to the mayor.”

Jameson said past committees, though well-intended, have proposed initiatives in recent years only for city leaders to fall short on implementing the proposals into new legislation and policies.

To change the narrative, Cooper has charged the group to submit their own recommendations and offer input on proposed legislation throughout the year. Instead of submitting one full report with project recommendations, the board will instead provide recommendations based on individual ordinances, Jameson said.

“[Cooper] wants to make clear that our objective is implementation ... it’s action, and not a mere report or recommendations,” Jameson said. “In a year from now, perhaps there won’t be a three-ring binder from [the group] with a report of recommendations, but there will be a year’s worth of actual implemented policies.”

Overcoming obstacles

At the Jan. 7 meeting, Jameson told board members they will likely face hurdles along the way—among them, financial constraints, state mandates and the public’s reception of various proposals.

As city leaders work to prepare the fiscal year 2020-21 budget by May—one full month early—to satisfy a demand from state officials after a $41.5 million shortfall was identified in the 2019-20 fiscal year’s budget, Jameson said proposals that come with a price tag are not likely to move forward until the next budget cycle.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “Proposals that are advanced by Metro Council and by the mayor that involve additional resources are of concern, at least in the short run.”

Beyond financial roadblocks, Jameson said the board must also be mindful of state laws in place when drafting recommendations.

“For significant legislation that may be the cure-all by this body, we have to be mindful of the fact that we have others that hold the purse strings that we have to be deferential to by law,” Jameson said.

He said some council members would support measures, such as regulating the use of plastic bags, Styrofoam cups or other nonrecyclable products, but House Bill 1021, which was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee in 2019, prohibits local governments from banning or regulating such items. While the law is still in effect, Sen. Richard Briggs filed Senate Bill 2131 on Feb. 3, which would prohibit grocery stores and other retail and service businesses from using plastic bags. The bill has not been approved nor withdrawn as of press time.

However, Nashville is not the only city to face state preemption for local laws. In 2016, the city of Austin, Texas, rolled back its single-use plastic bag ban after the Texas Supreme Court overturned a similar ban in Laredo, Texas.

“The state legislature has seen fit to preempt action by local governments that prohibit those materials, but that’s the law of the land,” Jameson said.

As the advisory board prepares to begin working with Metro Council, Jameson reminded the group that public opinion will vary depending on the ordinance.

“The last clear hurdle is no surprise to you, and that is public sentiment on this issue,” he said. “If I were to ask this room if climate change is real, and if there was a man-made element to it, I’m fairly sure I know the number of hands that would go up, but you are also fairly sure that that is not universally held.”

Despite these challenges, advisory board co-chair Eric Kopstain said he is optimistic the group will play a role in helping advance sustainability measures, such as the projects outlined in Cooper’s plan and others.

“What I see as being one of my key roles in helping facilitate the important work of this committee is to actually get things done,” Kopstain said. “I really look forward to helping things move things forward.”