Saving Energy in Savannah

Savannah, the “Hostess City of the South,” is known for its southern hospitality and charm, but it is also making a bid to be known as environmentally friendly. Already, the City has implemented a number of initiatives, including converting all of its traffic lights to more energy-efficient and long-lasting LEDs, expanding use of treated wastewater for irrigation and implementing a much-anticipated single-stream curbside recycling program.

In August 2008, Mayor Otis Johnson held a town hall meeting to pledge that the City of Savannah will be a more environmentally sustainable community and to launch a new sustainability initiative, dubbed Thrive. However, Johnson wanted to focus on leading by example rather than making policies that force citizens to get on board with the program.

“There’s a lot of talk about being green and sustainable,” Johnson said. “If we’re going to lift up being environmentally healthy, we have to walk that walk.”

Rachel Smithson, Thrive coordinator for the City of Savannah, began collecting data to establish the City’s carbon footprint. The City conducted employee commuter surveys and analyzed electricity consumption, fuel usage and gas emissions. By plugging all of this data into a formula created by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, Smithson realized that Savannah city government produces roughly 75,320 tons of equivalent carbon emissions per year.

“Now we had a baseline and we just needed to set an emissions reduction target,” Smithson recalled. “Just about that time, the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority came up with the Governor’s Energy Challenge that invited statewide business, county and city governments to reduce their energy consumption 15 percent by the year 2020.”

After studying the carbon footprint data, Smithson noticed that city government buildings were the number one source of energy consumption, a trend that coincides with national data. The Thrive Committee decided to focus its initial efforts on buildings, and through its connection with the Georgia Environmental Partnership, called on Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute for assistance. One of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation, the Enterprise Innovation Institute has a local office on Georgia Tech’s Savannah campus.

“We wanted to have an energy audit because we didn’t want to randomly start replacing lights and windows; we wanted to make sure that we were going to have the greatest impact on our electricity and energy consumption,” Smithson said. “The City was really excited about using Georgia Tech because it isn’t trying to sell us a particular product; the staff there gives us a good, third-party, neutral analysis of what we need.”

Mike Brown, an energy specialist with the Enterprise Innovation Institute, and two Georgia Tech co-op students conducted energy audits at three government buildings: City Hall, the Thomas Gamble Building and the Broughton Municipal Building. All three are designated historic buildings, and house the mayor’s office and council chambers, human resources, information technology, auditing, utility services and revenue, among others.

Brown and the students placed data loggers in each of the buildings, measuring temperature, lighting and energy consumption, even over nights and weekends. They studied each building’s energy consumption history and measured the major energy-consuming equipment.

Among the recommendations that the Georgia Tech specialists made were: replace incandescent lamps with compact fluorescent lamps, improve fluorescent lighting efficiency by replacing T-12 lights with T-8 lights, and manage the building plug-load. They also recommended installing occupancy sensors in restrooms, vending machine controllers to reduce lighting and cooling, a building automation system to automatically control HVAC systems, and variable-air volume fans to match air flow with cooling needs.

According to Smithson, the biggest challenge now is implementing Georgia Tech’s recommendations. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the City was able to establish a revolving loan with its stimulus funding. Although the City cannot implement all of the recommendations immediately, Smithson says that as soon as one investment is paid back, another project can begin with the energy savings from the previous project.

“Other challenges we face include changing the mindset of our employees, but behavior modification and organizational and culture shifts take time,” she said. “We also don’t want to harm the historic integrity of our facilities, but at the same time we don’t want to be so concerned that we’re throwing energy out the window because we’re using single-pane glass.”

Already, the benefits are outweighing the challenges. Georgia Tech’s assistance allowed the City to have an energy conservation strategy in place, a requirement of the stimulus funding application that some cities have spent more than $250,000 to obtain. And although a lot of investments have yet to be made, electricity expenditures were $350,000 below what the City had targeted through May 2009, something Smithson attributes to changing employee behavior alone.

“Having Georgia Tech on board doing the energy audit has helped us transform our messaging from ‘this is good for the environment’ to ‘this is good for the bottom line,’ and that has helped us sell this larger Thrive initiative to our elected officials and the community,” said Bret Bell, director of Savannah’s Public Information Office. “We’re taking it seriously enough that we want to document where we started and where we are going. It has given us credibility.”

About Enterprise Innovation Institute:

The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

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Writer: Nancy Fullbright