This article was created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund and originally appeared on ThinkProgress on July 31, 2013.
making change
Knoxville, Tennessee. (Credit: Flickr user Alex Banakas)
Knoxville, Tennessee. (Credit: Flickr user Alex Banakas)

You might be surprised that the same town that Jeff Foxworthy calls home is a green haven. I’m not talking about the famous comedian. I’m referring to a man who, when not using Foxworthy as his nom de guerre, identified himself as “The Educated Redneck.” I met him while eating dinner at an English pub-themed restaurant in Knoxville’s Old City, where he bought four rounds of drinks for everyone seated at the bar in alarmingly rapid succession. “Are you having a good time?” he asked me (and everyone), in a thick, drunken drawl.

Actually, I was. And not (only) because of Mr. Redneck’s Jack Daniels IV. My visit to Knoxville, on assignment to investigate the surprising blossoming of a clean economy in blood-red East Tennessee, had been going beautifully. It wasn’t just that the Knoxville city government’s push to green the city was impressive, though it was: Over the past seven years, Knoxville has reduced the city government carbon footprint by 17 percent, multiplied its solar capacity by 133 times, saved millions per year through an energy efficiency push, and (by one metric) become the fastest-growing metro area for green jobs in the country. And they’re just getting started, with plans to tackle big remaining sources of emissions like urban sprawl and agriculture.

But beyond the concrete policy successes, there’s a deeper, human story about how a town where climate change, formerly a four-letter phrase in this right-leaning region, grew into a watchword. It’s the story of how a twice-arrested labor organizer who made fighting climate change part of her mayoral platform was given the power to do just that by the silver-spoon oilman that beat her. It’s the story of how a polymath political science professor happened upon a young environmentalist halfway across the country who turned out to be just the person to make Knoxville’s buildings efficient and its power clean. It’s the story of how a city bureaucrat whose project was falling apart got a second chance, and how she used it to cement Knoxville’s green momentum.

There are broader lessons, too. Knoxville’s experience shows how even staunchly conservative coal country can be sold on commonsense efforts to save the climate. The rapid change, spearheaded almost exclusively by a tiny group of people, is a testament to the ways in which government, rescued from the clutches of enshackling ideologists, can serve the common good. It’s also, weirdly enough, proof of the far-reaching benefits of the 2009 stimulus package and the complex ways in which even minor-seeming federal action on climate change can make a big difference locally.

It’s a story, in short, about hope.


Knoxville, according to economist Tyler Cowen, is “the most perfectly average place in the United States.” The city is “big enough to be something, but not a truly large metropolis,” Cowen wrote (he’s more right than he knew). It is, in Cowen’s opinion, “educated enough to avoid some of the more stereotypical features of the South,” probably owing to the University of Tennessee (UT) and nearby Oak Ridge National Labs, but still identifiably both Southern and Appalachian. Situated just west of both the border with North Carolina and the Great Smokey Mountains, it’d be hard for it not to be.

Knoxville columnist Jack Neely charitably took Cowen’s note as a compliment. “To be ‘average,’ you need a little bit of everything, good and bad,” Neely, the author of six books about Knoxville, wrote. “Knoxville has garden clubs and street gangs. We have authors and illiterates. We have McMansions and crack houses — sometimes at the same address.”

Neely also sees city politics as pretty “average.” “In presidential races, the city proper almost always favors the Democrat” — a point one Knoxville progressive took pains to emphasize during my visit — “even as the county and metro area go Republican.”

So when I say Knoxville is a conservative city, I don’t mean that the city limits proper mark a hotbed of Tea Party activism, though that certainly exists. Knoxville’s conservatism, rather, is better understood in context of two broader truths. First, Knoxville is conservative by Tennessee and national city standards, because cities tend to be where any given state’s most progressive citizens concentrate. In 2012, Obama won Knoxville with 53 percent of the vote, a full five points below his national average in mid-size cities.

Second, Knox County and East Tennessee are themselves so intensely conservative as to more place limits on Knoxville’s already tepid-at-best progressivism. Knoxville’s Congressional district is among the top one percent most Republican districts in the country, as measured by the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Knox County, the district’s bluest, went for Romney by a 30 point margin. By contrast, the counties that house Tennessee’s other “Big Four” cities — Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga — respectively went for Obama by 26, Obama by 18.5, and Romney by 15.

Local politics can, according to some local politicos and activists, bring out Knoxville’s most conservative side. “When I got elected as vice-mayor,” former Knoxville City Councilman Bob Becker told me, “I was the only open Democrat on council at the time.”

Knoxville-04Knoxville isn’t just redder than your average metropole — historically, it’s also been sootier. Knoxville is at the southern edge of coal country, and the dirty industry fueled the city’s economic boom in the late 19th century. As recently as the 1950s, Knoxvillians burned incredible amounts of coal in their homes for heating and cooking, coughing up a Beijing-style haze of particulates so thick that, in one colorful retelling, people would go to church wearing a white shirt and leave in a gray one. Traces of the Knoxville haze remained into the late 70s; Bill Lyons, the city’s chief policy officer and municipal mastermind, recalled looking out his 10th floor office and seeing “a layer of grimy air” produced by the commercial coal plants still burning inside the city limits. “I grew up in Memphis,” Lyons recalled, “and there was none of that there.”

Hailing from Memphis as he may, Lyons today is the essential Knoxvillian. Spend an afternoon out with Bill on Knoxville’s central Gay Street, and this city of 180,000 feel start to feel like a town one-tenth that size. It’s his habit to set up at a bar named Woodruff’s and hold court about city politics. He has an easy manner, something like a cross between a thoughtful, up-in-the-clouds college professor and your most gregarious uncle.

Lyons sounds like an academic because, in the not-so-distant past, he was one. For decades, he taught political science at UT, where he specialized in political statistics and methodology. His specialty was hardly his only interest, though — one of the first things out of Bill’s mouth when we met was an obscure joke about French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a reflection of his self-professed tendency to dabble in fields outside his own.

One of these many interests, city politics, dragged him into public service. By the 80s, Market Square, a restaurant/business plaza that’s historically been the beating heart of downtown Knoxville, had fallen into shambles: Lyons recalls it being populated with “homeless people sitting around drinking whiskey or something out of a paper bag,” its dozens of storefronts shuttered nearly to the last hinge. “Nobody ever came downtown,” he recalled “except to come down to the courthouse, do your business and leave.” Lyons had been appointed to a local urban development agency, where his job centered on fixing downtown in general and Market Square in specific.

He succeeded. Market Square and downtown Knoxville today are thriving, and Lyons seems to get the, er, lion’s share of the credit. “Without [Lyons’] herculean efforts,” wrote the deputy to the mayor in office at the time of the development push, “Market Square would not be what it is today — a vibrant city center.” The city even went so far as to name the square’s crowning pavilion after him.

Market Square, as seen from the Bill Lyons Pavilion. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)
Market Square, as seen from the Bill Lyons Pavilion. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)

Lyons’ experience with downtown development set up the city’s climate push in three different ways. First, he got some experience in how to make the city government hum that would prove invaluable down the line. For years, Knoxville’s city government had been paralyzed by bickering over whose grandiose development scheme to gamble on, resulting in a gummed-up government and, on the rare occasions it passed something, a slew of failed investments. “The political culture had gotten to a point here where it was like we can’t do anything,” Lyons recalled with some disgust.

The downtown development group tried a new angle. Instead of coming up with a plan first and trying to ram it through city council, they solicited feedback from the community and local businesses, both to get a better sense of the realities on the ground and build bases of political support for the eventual proposal. “By having a lot more open public process and using a lot of best practices,” Lyons recalled, “we sort of had a complete paradigm shift on how we dealt with development.” This bottom-up, consensus-building strategy would prove critical to the growth and eventual success of Knoxville’s sustainability push.

Second, environmental sustainability started to occupy more prominent real estate in Lyons’ personal intellectual map. Before he started working for the city, Lyons never really paid all that much attention to climate change or other environmental issues (he cited the Vietnam and Iraq wars and the civil rights movement as more formative political issues). But talking about the environmental costs of urban sprawl became a natural way to sell the downtown development push to some of Knoxville’s citizens. “[Sustainability] became part of our message,” Lyons suggested, because it was one useful way to tout the virtues a more walkable Knoxville. As Lyons grew in power inside the city government, his support for greening Knoxville would prove decisive.

Third, it’s where he met a wealthy oil scion with political ambitions named Bill Haslam.

The Oilman And The Organizer

When Bill Haslam made his mayoral ambitions plain in 2002, he seemed unstoppable. His father, James “Big Jim” Haslam, founded Pilot Oil, a regional chain of gas stations and convenience stores that, by 1998, had grown to become one of the nation’s largest private corporations and restaurant franchises. Bill, Big Jim, and Bill’s older brother Jimmy filled the top roles at Pilot, and had used their wealth to become key players in the state’s political and philanthropic scenes. Think of them as something like a less established, Tennessean version of the Bush family.

“If you go to any concert, any event, anything that goes on, they’re major sponsors of it,” Lyons told me. Multiple sources who had talked openly about the Haslams wrote back after our conversations to ask that their on-record comments not be used in the piece. Speculation about Bill Haslam’s politics could “get me into some trouble,” one wrote. “It is just easier for me to stay out of all of that publicly,” another said.

Though the Haslams are staunch Republicans — the family donated lavishly to Karl Rove’s SuperPAC — they’re not fire-breathers. Even on climate change, the oilfolk don’t appear to have developed the reflexive hostility to environmental concerns bred into many dirty energy insiders. “I always felt in my interactions with [Bill Haslam] that he was thoughtful and reasonable,” Steve Smith, the director of Knoxville-headquartered Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), told me. The youngest Haslam was “what the Republican party used to be back in the ‘70s and even up probably until the early ‘90s, where the environment was not something that was a partisan issue that they’re always on the wrong side of.”

That’s not to say that Bill Haslam is a climate hawk. No one, including people that worked closely with him on sustainability issues, was even sure if he thought climate change was real. “I think that he thinks that it is real in the sense that changes are happening,” Smith said, but “I’m not sure where he is now or what he would be willing to say about the human causes of it [or] the pace at which we need to mitigate.” Haslam’s record as governor of Tennessee (a position he took up in 2010) bears this out; though he weakly protested the veto-proof passage of a bill that would permit climate denial to be taught in schools, he has yet to make any major state-level pushes to improve the climate either. “Since he’s been governor, he has done nothing that I’m aware of to at all position the state in any sort of leadership,” Smith said. “He’s just being constantly pulled to the right by a bunch of these guys that are anti-science, anti-rational.”

So when Haslam began his political career in Knoxville, no one was all that surprised that environmental problems weren’t really on his agenda. His opponent, however, had other ideas.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons march in the city’s 2012 Pridefest event. (Credit: Flickr user Wyoming_Jackrabbit)
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Chief Policy Officer Bill Lyons march in the city’s 2012 Pridefest event. (Credit: Flickr user Wyoming_Jackrabbit)

If Bill Haslam represented Knoxville’s capitalists, then Madeline Rogero championed the proletariat. In 1974, when Haslam was 16, Rogero was getting paid five dollars a week as a college senior helping César Chávez and the United Farm Workers organize indigent farmhands. She recalls her “wonderful and meaningful” time working for Chávez with pride: “César was a great organizer of people, a strategic thinker, and an impassioned speaker. He was truly impressive and inspired many people to join the cause.”

She even got arrested for “the cause” — twice. In 1974, she was taken to jail for passing out union literature in Dayton, Ohio; in 1989, a Virginia coal company called the police on a sit-in for, in her words, “a 42-year-old disabled miner whose lower vertebra had been crushed in a mining accident that left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair … the company had terminated his benefits.” At a 2011 public forum, Rogero bluntly defended her record: “I got arrested for standing up for working people.”

None of this fire comes across when you first meet Madeline. She speaks directly but not angrily, less like a soapbox firebrand and more like a consensus-building leader who hasn’t yet picked up the habit of speaking in the uniquely political dialect of soundbites and cant.

“He had four times the money,” she said of her campaign against Haslam, a note of insurgent pride creeping into her genteel Southern-accented voice. “We ran a very competitive campaign.” Indeed they did: Rogero went straight at Haslam’s family connections, running an ad mocking Haslam’s father and accusing him of presenting “the facade of a public process” while “the real decisions are made by an elite few.”

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Haslam, who had recruited Bill Lyons to help with his campaign after they had worked together on the downtown restoration project, began with a 15 point lead and ended up winning with 52 percent of the vote. But Rogero’s efforts weren’t for naught.

“I really talked about [sustainability] in my campaign,” Madeline said. “[Haslam] listened, he heard — that wasn’t his driving issue, but he wasn’t opposed. It was one of my driving-type issues.”

Lyons recalls a more limited, but nonetheless important, green debate. “She helped push these issues onto the agenda,” Lyons said. “Madeline was very savvy — she tended to put things out knowing that this was all new to the culture. Her putting it on the agenda in the mayor’s race definitely gave voice to the issue locally.”

The impact almost was immediate. “Some of my supporters,” Rogero said, “came in pretty early in his administration to talk to him … he [also] reached out to my people who were pretty sustainability minded.”

He actually went further than that. In a magnanimous move given the at-times bitter tone of the campaign, Haslam brought Rogero (along with Lyons) into his government.

“He was elected, so I feel like I needed to support him. So we immediately started communicating, and getting along and all, that was three years before he asked me to join his administration.” Madeline Rogero would begin serving as Bill Haslam’s director of community development in 2006.

It turned out to be damn good timing.

‘A Perfect Storm’

Madeleine Weil Klein was unemployed, and getting a little desperate.

“I spent a fair amount of time looking for a job,” she says with a chuckle. “I think at first nobody could quite figure out what I did.”

Klein, who moved from New Haven to Knoxville after her husband got hired to teach at UT, had spent the past four years getting the city of New Haven’s sustainability and climate change initiatives running and working for a Connecticut environmental non-profit. At first, it didn’t seem like there was much like that to do in Knoxville.

But Klein caught a break. Some people from UT had, as part of their recruiting push for her husband, sent her resume over to Bill Lyons, who was directing Haslam’s Department of Policy and Communications at the time. He met her when the young family came to visit and was “completely impressed.” Her interest in getting involved with local life, through things like a local food co-op, was “a classic [example] of how to get engaged in the community.” It’s not surprising that people would take to Madeleine: She has a winningly chipper, yet self-deprecating, manner about her.

A bit after Lyons met Klein, his deputy in the Office of Policy Development quit. Though the position’s primary responsibility was downtown restoration, rather than sustainability writ large, he offered her the job. “Once you have this, any work you want to do to [on sustainability]” is fine, he told her.

She started in January 2007 and, in one year, she and Madeline Rogero had in tandem launched the three major initiatives that would prove the hallmarks of Knoxville’s green makeover.

First, they got wind from Steve Smith’s group, SACE, that the federal government had created something called the Solar American Cities program, which offered a small number of grants to cities for the purposes of building up their solar industry. Klein and Lyons’ office pitched it to Haslam, who agreed to pursue it with SACE’s help.

Gil Hough was, at the time, the SACE employee charged with actually putting the thing together. “I got to spend my Christmas break writing this,” he winces. He also didn’t recall his draft proposal being very good. “It was complete, but it was rough. There were smaller kids at the home,” he appended apologetically.

Klein got the draft from Hough and, in the latter’s words, “disappeared” for two days. She came back with something that he described, in almost reverent tones, as “beautiful.” “She just rocked it out … She had contacted [the Knoxville Utility Board] and [Tennessee Valley Authority] and Oak Ridge National Laboratories and she lined up matching funds … within a week, which is the time we had, she had turned a very rough proposal into a beautiful proposal. She turned it into everything you need.”

Knoxville-03Knoxville, of course, won. As one of 12 Solar American Cities, they had about $400,000 freshly minted dollars to build up a solar industry virtually from scratch by March 2008. Most of the grant was earmarked for solar education, rather than direct investment, which meant that the straightest line to building up a solar industry — a subsidy program — was off-limits. Instead, Knoxville used the grant to do four things: teach potential solar entrepreneurs and relevant regulators how to get the industry off the ground through a series of public workshops and tutorials, create a database that allows local customers to find potential solar installers easily and quickly, directly install a solar array on the central, highly visible Convention Center to increase awareness, and revamp zoning regulations to allow for solar to prosper. As we’ll see, the effects were dramatic.

Mayor Haslam, according to Lyons, didn’t need to wait to see the results before celebrating the solar grant. He singled out Klein’s “great work” at a council meeting, praising her “tremendous effort [that] paid off.”

Almost simultaneously, Haslam was realizing he had a major energy cost problem on his hands. Becker recalls a budget presentation where Lyons laid out the city’s expenses. Utilities were the city’s third-highest bill. Becker summarizes the mayor’s reaction:”hoooo-llly … [he trails off].”

Klein and Rogero had a solution. The latter’s post at the Department of Community Development gave her purview over affordable housing projects, which she had used to start making energy-efficient improvements (particularly solar-heated hot water) as a means of both saving Knoxville’s poorest money and reducing the city’s climate footprint. Klein proposed expanding this effort to municipal buildings, employing a broader slate of energy efficiency improvements like weatherization and replacing inefficient boilers. The Madel(e)ines sold the mayor on the project’s on fiscal grounds, and the city asked Ameresco, a retrofitting company, to audit the buildings to see what sort of improvements could be made in 2007.

The third initiative tied the first two together. In New Haven, Klein had seen the benefits of setting up a task force to assess the city’s resources and plan out what could be done. Following the path Lyons blazed during the city redevelopment, she put together a task force that brought in representatives from all relevant local stakeholders: NGOs (SACE, specifically), business (as represented by the Chamber of Commerce, which had recently come around to clean energy as a potential growth area for Knoxville), local and regional utilities, an interested city councilman, and so on.

Knoxville’s Riverwalk at night. (Credit: Flickr User Frank Kehren)
Knoxville’s Riverwalk at night. (Credit: Flickr User Frank Kehren)

The Task Force issued its report in January 2008, proposing an ambitious integrated strategy to lower Knoxville’s CO2 emissions by 20 percent by 2020. It coalesced into 33 concrete initiatives, including a loan-pilot system to allow citizens to retrofit private residences and businesses, tasking city officials with helping set up community gardens, set up single stream curbside recycling throughout the city, and replacing the city’s automobile fleet with more gas-efficient vehicles.

One major question, however, was funding. As he wasn’t much of a climate true believer, Haslam really only responded to dollar arguments for sustainable practices. How were Lyons, Rogero, and Klein going to persuade him to make all of these investments if the city had to pay for them in full?

Then Knoxville’s second stroke of good luck hit: the Great Recession.

It wasn’t the recession itself that helped the city, of course. Knoxville took a hit just like everywhere else. Rather, it was its political aftermath — more specifically, the much-derided stimulus — that took Knoxville’s quest for sustainability to the next level.

Knoxville-021The general story is well-known, or, at least, it should be. Mike Grunwald’s The New New Deal, the seminal book on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), catalogued the massive slate of loans, tax credits, and grants tucked away in the bill for the purposes of making the recovery green. They funded energy efficiency retrofits, solar and wind power startups, and basic research in green tech. Grunwald’s basic thesis is that these investments represented “a giant leap towards cleaner energy,” one that would pay dividends all throughout the country.

Knoxville doesn’t appear in Grunwald’s book, but it’s as perfect a microcosm of his argument as he could’ve asked for. Klein, Lyons, and Rogero coauthored a grant proposal that earned the city over $2 million — more than a full one percent of its entire 2012 budget — to dump into shovel-ready green initiatives. That included seed capital to help cover the $19 million initial outlay necessary for Ameresco to go beyond audits and start actually implementing a slate of over 17 different types of retrofits on 99 municipal buildings, to install a solar array on the Convention Center that would end up, on its own, roughly quadrupling Knoxville’s solar capacity while simultaneously planting a huge green flag on one of the city’s central landmarks, and to train contractors in Energy Conservation Codes and Earthcraft Certifications in order to expand the private energy efficiency market, among other things.

Most importantly, the stimulus provided three years of funding for a new part of the city government — the Office of Sustainability — that would be tasked with both actually shoveling the “shovel-ready” cash to green projects and developing a plan for Knoxville’s future beyond the stimulus. The ARRA dollars weren’t just a one-time cash infusion: they were the catalyst for Knoxville’s green explosion.

Don’t Say Climate Change

But where was the opposition?

One might expect that, in the most conservative region of one of the nation’s most conservative states, someone might have had an objection to their region’s flagship city taking stimulus dollars to fund action against climate change. While Knoxville’s first major green push was peaking, the national Republican Party was getting busy fillibustering cap-and-trade legislation and making climate denial a central part of the party platform. It stands to reason that at least some of this would have trickled down to the East Tennessee grassroots.

Yet no one, ranging from Knoxville’s sustainability insiders to local businesses to clean energy advocates, could remember any meaningful opposition to Knoxville’s sustainability push. The most activity anyone could think of was a recent fuss about Agenda 21 — a benign UN document that some Tea Partiers have spun into a covert international plot to steal America’s golf courses. But the anti-Agenda 21ers in Knoxville and Knox County never posed much of a threat, as there were only 12 of them. That’s not just an expression for effect — Bill Lyons, who spends a lot of time on local blogs and web forums, counted them.

Knoxvillian opinion as to why local conservatives didn’t object to creeping environmentalism basically split into three schools of thought. The first, and least plausible, is that the nominally non-partisan character of local elections disconnected the national debate from the local one. The city’s politics “don’t lend themselves to partisan fighting,” said Jesse Fox Mayshark, Rogero’s current communications manager.

This explanation isn’t good enough. Everyone knew, in 2003, that Rogero was the Democrat and Haslam the Republican. If people wanted to bring the partisan climate fight back home to Knoxville, they would have known whom to target. Moreover, the anti-Agenda 21 movement was built on opposition to local sustainability initiatives tied to the GOP’s national lurch rightward on climate change. In fact, what made Agenda 21 such a popular rallying cry in conservative localities around the country was that the document talks specifically about urban development. It’s hard to imagine what about Knoxville and Knox County politics specifically, given the depth and vehemence of local conservative opinion, would immunize the area from this national trend.

The second theory is that Bill Haslam’s imprimatur neutralized the threat. “Nobody’s gonna argue finance [and] business promotion with Bill Haslam,” Becker told me. If Haslam was selling clean energy on economic grounds, the local Republicans wouldn’t mount a challenge. That seems plausible enough given the Haslams’ Republican cred and economic clout, but it’s hard to prove. The president of the Knox County Republicans, Ruthie Kuhlman, declined to comment on these and related issues.

The third, and perhaps the grimmest, option is that they won by treating climate change like Voldemort: The Issue That Shall Not Be Named.

It wouldn’t be quite fair to say they never spoke about it. The 2008 Task Force report forcefully presents the risks climate change poses to East Tennessee — most notably, death from heat exposure, disease-born illness, and ecosystem collapse in the Smokey Mountains. Even Haslam himself boasted of their climate-friendliness, extolling the fact that the Ameresco retrofitting contract would “avert the release of approximately 18.5 million pounds of CO2 emissions annually, which is equivalent to taking more than 1,600 cars off Knoxville’s streets.”

The view from the Knoxville-adjacent Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)
The view from the Knoxville-adjacent Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)

But the near-consensus view among Knoxville insiders is that, scattered government documents and press releases aside, they simply avoided talking about climate change in public as much as possible. “We sort of recognized that the reality was that there was a diversity of opinion about climate change in East Tennessee,” Klein said in typically diplomatic fashion. “I don’t recall [the decision to avoid climate change language] being something that any of us agonized over, that we had to have lengthy discussions about. It was easy enough and accurate enough, honest enough, to say, look, these are things that — actions that will save money for the city.”

Bill Haslam’s growing political ambition also played a role in shutting up climate talk. In January 2009, just as the first batch of sustainability initiatives were brewing, Haslam threw his hat in the 2010 governor’s race. Say what you will about local Knoxville politics, but in statewide Tennessee politics, climate change is unquestionably politicized — the then-current governor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, was weathering a series of nasty legislative attacks in retaliation for his unprecedented support for Tennessee clean energy from state Republicans. Haslam’s bright record on climate change in Knoxville was a liability, and his opponents knew it.

So did Haslam’s staff. Lyons, for his part, recalls an clear chilling effect. “Partially [our refusal to talk climate change] was because of the politicization — the governor’s race was starting to take shape, and there was people looking for something to say about Bill Haslam, on any kind of any issue, that’s just the way it works, people trolling emails and open records requests and those sorts of things … it was not like Bill sat down and said don’t use these words, we all knew.” This was also shaped by incipient anti-climate sentiment: “You could all see, also that the anti-climate change people were popping up in the horizon, the denier types were getting a little more legs.”

Even the more evangelical Rogero recognized the reality of the matter. “They had to stay away from sounding like a tree-hugger” she said of PlanET, a Knoxville metro area sustainable growth initiative that she secured funding for during the Haslam administration. PlanET, which is just finishing up its planning stages, is the first major attempt to tackle the largest regional climate problem, sprawl and automobile pollution, and drew the heaviest fire from the local anti-Agenda 21ers. Some staff took the incident to heart: “it’s hard for Susanna to say anything [about climate change]” Rogero said, prompting a laugh from her staff.

Susanna is Susanna Sutherland, the woman brought in to head up the Office of Sustainability. While Klein, Lyons, and Rogero were spearheading the push for stimulus bucks, Sutherland was in charge of the city’s waterfront development project, which at the time was a much bigger deal. “We had done this huge comprehensive planning for it, I mean, billions of dollars, and we had taken all the way to the point of construction documentation for several key projects.”

“And [then] the economy just, whew, you know.”

The waterfront plan had been dependent on private dollars matching the public investment but, in a post-financial crash world, businesses weren’t ponying up. So Sutherland was a project manager without a project to manage.

Knoxville-051The stimulus threw her a badly needed lifeline. Her undergrad and graduate education in environmental science, together with her intimate familiarity with Knoxville’s bureaucracy, made her ideally positioned to hit the sustainability ground running. Since federal requirements meant that stimulus money had to be spent fast, she was the clear and obvious choice.

Susanna didn’t have much time to wage an ideological war against climate deniers when there were pragmatic victories to be had. “Why politicize something when you can just do it?” she told me plaintively, looking up with tired eyes.

And that, for a time, was the way of things. By the summer of 2009, Madeleine Weil Klein was on her way out, having accepted a job at the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. Bill Haslam won the 2010 governor’s race, and Madeline Rogero had quit the government to run for his newly vacant seat. The interim mayor, Daniel Brown, was even less interested in sustainability than Haslam. “He was less involved than Bill was,” Lyons says. “It just wasn’t on his radar, negative or positive.”

So Lyons, Sutherland, and her deputy were left alone to implement the ambitious agenda set out for them — sharpening the Task Force recommendations, running the solar workshops set up through the Solar American Cities grant, overseeing the Ameresco contract, installing LED light bulbs in city traffic lights, and so on. There wasn’t much time for innovation.

Meanwhile, there was an axe dangling over their heads. Sutherland’s entire office was funded by the stimulus. That money ran out in 2012 and, if they couldn’t get local funding to replace it, the Office of Sustainability would be forced to shutter its doors.

Knoxville’s green quest was looking like it might fail just as it was getting started.


Knoxville-07Sutherland isn’t afraid to talk about climate change anymore. In mid-July, I watched her give a presentation about Knoxville’s clean energy work to the local chapter of the United States Green Building Corporation. She previewed the city’s soon-to-be-official carbon emissions numbers, unabashedly centering the program’s goals on emissions reductions. She openly mocked “tea parties” who thought “we were trying to take their land away from them and give it back to the squirrels and rabbits,” though she cautioned they were worth taking seriously because “logic doesn’t always work with them.”

The truth is that there isn’t much reason for Sutherland to be afraid. In 2011, Rogero campaigned for mayor on avowedly climate-friendly platform — one of the four main planks of her policy agenda, called “Living Green and Working Green,” aimed to help make the earth sustainable “for seven generations,” a reference to an Iroquois idea that has become an environmentalist proverb.

“Everybody should be saying, ‘what’s the right thing to do for this planet?’” she declaimed. “That should be an acceptable part of our caretaking of our community.”

In Knoxville, it has. “[Climate talk] moved out from being considered fringe here locally and maybe it was considered more fringe-y here than it was nationally or somewhere else,” Lyons said. “The environmentalism, the sustainability, it’s much more mainstream and when you speak about it, people are now much more accepting.”

Even the Chamber of Commerce’s staff, though they feebly attempted to deny it, admitted that climate change had become a local priority. “People are thinking about their carbon footprint a lot,” according to Doug Lawyer, the Chamber’s vice president of economic development.

So when one of Rogero’s first priorities after her whopping (58-42) victory was to permanently fund the Office of Sustainability, it sailed through without a fuss. Lyons, who stayed on as chief policy officer in the Rogero administration, sees this as the general pattern when it comes to Knoxville’s sustainability work nowadays: “I’m attuned to the feedback we get from all kinds of places: I’ve got virtually no negative feedback on anything [Rogero has] done or said … it’s so little I can hardly even think of it.” Even without Bill Haslam to provide conservative cover, Knoxvillians appear to have gotten on board with a climate friendly agenda.

That’s true despite the city’s very open talk about climate change. “We had our own internal meeting,” Lyons recalled, “where [Rogero] said, you guys can use this now. You can talk about carbon emissions, that’s fine.”

Knoxville-011The city has greened along with its citizens. Some of the preliminary numbers in Sutherland’s presentation were eye-popping: The two largest sources of government CO2 emissions, buildings and streetlights, are down 33 percent and 18 percent from their 2005 levels respectively. These new numbers also showed that the city government, as a whole, had decreased its overall emissions by 17 percent, five points better than the Task Force plan hoped for and well on-target to reach the goal of a 20 percent emissions reductions by 2020.

“Wow, that’s impressive!” said Professor Michael McKinney, a UT biologist who has consulted with the city government on sustainability issues, when I relayed the numbers to him.

Some of that decrease is due to the recession, but it can’t be divorced from the city’s success in enacting its climate agenda. Of the 33 specific policies recommended by the Task Force, 31 have been or are currently being implemented. That means significantly expanded city recycling programs, the creation of a new sustainable purchasing policy instructing city employees to buy provisions only from environmentally friendly sources, and 24 new public charging stations for electric vehicles (Knoxville was one of 11 cities in the nation involved in a public EV expansion pilot program).

Of course, some of the 33 initiatives were more important in reducing CO2 emissions than others. Of the big-ticket initiatives, there’s no doubt that a significant percentage of the reductions are attributable to the Ameresco retrofits and the replacement of all traffic lights and a number of streetlights with LED bulbs given that the largest reductions, broken down by sector, were in buildings and streetlights.

These have also saved money. The most recent estimates suggest the municipal retrofits are paying back roughly $1.1-$1.3 million per year, which means the city will easily make back its initial investment over the course of the next roughly decade-and-a-half. The LED traffic lights paid for themselves in two years. The fiscal case for sustainability in Knoxville, which clearly played a key role in mainstreaming the idea, appears solid.

Knoxville-06The solar industry is also booming. Knoxville’s solar capacity since 2008 has multiplied by a whopping 138 times, from the measly 30 kw all the way to 4.113 megawatts. “I think the Solar Cities grant played a huge role in that,” Steve Smith said. The logic of his point is compelling: East Tennessee had very few people familiar enough with solar energy, either on the government or private sector side, to allow for investment in the field. Since the bulk of the grant was spent on public workshops and other educational methods that taught code regulators and businessfolk necessary skills, it ended up creating the human capital necessary for the solar sector to take root. That this coincided with a market drop in the price of solar — and significant federal and regional investment in the nuts-and-bolts of solar construction and installation — was (once again) fortuitous timing.

Gil Hough, who’s now the president of Tennessee Solar Energy Commission, thinks the impact spread beyond East Tennessee. The Solar American Cities grant was overseen by a board that included members of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the publicly-owned utility that serves basically all of Tennessee and bits of six other southeastern states. As the solar industry inches forward in Tennessee and the TVA region, Hough spies Knoxvillian roots. “The focus of our calls was how to create programs for the city of Knoxville, then they in turn were creating programs for the state of Tennessee, I saw how their previous work helping make the programs for the city of Knoxville helped shape and make them excited for making programs for the state of Tennessee.”

Klein, ever modest, thought the regional claim was a bit much. “There’s not that much going on” solar-wise in the TVA region, she noted correctly. But she did agree with Hough on Tennessee: “I think [the grant] gave Knoxville, the county, and the surrounding cities and counties and the state really an idea for how to spend some of those ARRA dollars that came in 2009 and helped us sort of set up the types of programs that would really kick off the market.” She’s in a good place to know — she’s currently a senior vice president at SoCore Energy, an industrial solar developer, where she’s tasked with keeping track of energy markets and policy around the country to look for new business opportunities.

TVA, for its part, is hugely impressed with Knoxville’s sustainability work. “Of all TVA cities, Knoxville really does stand out as a leader in renewable energy and energy efficiency,” Patty West, the director of TVA’s Renewable Energy Program, wrote via email. “The city has installed solar systems on downtown structures and charging stations for electric vehicles. It has converted traffic lights, parking lot lights and is piloting the conversion of street lights to high-efficiency LED lighting, and its convention center is LEED certified.”

Knoxville’s LEED certified Convention Center, the first in the state. (Credit: Flickr user Matt Swint)
Knoxville’s LEED certified Convention Center, the first in the state. (Credit: Flickr user Matt Swint)

West also cites some encouraging numbers about residential power. “Knoxville residences and businesses buy more TVA Green Power Switch renewable energy through Knoxville Utilities Board than any other local power company served by TVA,” West wrote. Green Power Switch is a TVA program that allows users to voluntarily pay slightly more in exchange for ensuring that all of their energy comes from renewable sources.

“For all of these reasons and others,” West wrote, “we named the City of Knoxville as our Green Power Switch Community of the Year for 2012. Other communities offered strong competition. In the end, we felt that the City of Knoxville really gained an edge with the long list of actions they’ve taken to lead their community and diminish their footprint.”

Finally, Knoxville is slowly morphing into a green jobs powerhouse. By 2011, the Knoxville metro area had the fastest-growing clean jobs sector in the country, according to a recent Brookings report, and the second-highest percentage of green jobs nationally.

The bulk of the credit, as Knoxville’s leaders readily acknowledge, goes to Oak Ridge National Laboratories. A mere 45 minute-drive west from Knoxville, Oak Ridge is an unbelievably large institution: Its annual budget is roughly ten times the Knoxville city government’s. The lab’s central mandate, future energy technologies, means that, by virtue of what it is, Oak Ridge would help generate green jobs for the surrounding region.

But Oak Ridge’s director, Thomas Mason, thinks it’d be wrong for him to take all the credit for Knoxville’s national ranking. Mason also directs Innovation Valley, a “consortium of local economic development agencies” aimed at bringing high-tech jobs to region around Oak Ridge. “You need to have willing partners,” Mason said, citing the failure of other national labs to create jobs without local assistance. Knoxville’s broad-based clean energy and sustainability work “helps us in terms of the staff that we recruit, [who] tend to be pretty passionate about the mission, so it helps that we’ve got a local area where we’ve got positive reinforcement for that.”

Knoxville’s work also helps attract start-ups who base their work on Oak Ridge energy research, according to Mason. “You ask ‘what are the values of these companies going to be and what are the values of these employees going to be?’ You’re going to find an emphasis on sustainability and they’re going to want to locate in a region where that’s part of the agenda. So I think [Knoxville’s sustainability work] is a smart strategy from the point of view of reinforcing the economic growth agenda of the region.”

“If you look at [the Brookings report],” Mason said, “it’s not that the lab hired a bunch of people,” as Oak Ridge was, at the time the report surveys, expanding slowly. Instead, Mason explains, a lot of the new green jobs came from local companies who got their start subcontracting for the lab but then expanded out to the broader region. Local partners interested in sustainability help create an environment where these businesses can succeed.

Again, I should be clear — Knoxville didn’t become the number one fastest growing metro area for green jobs in the nation all, or even largely, on the basis of its sustainability push. It was blessed by certain natural advantages, like Oak Ridge and the University of Tennessee, that were merely helped along by the city’s efforts. To a lesser extent, that’s true for all of Knoxville’s successes: It didn’t pass the stimulus nor create the Solar American Cities program.

But, at the same time, there was nothing inevitable about Knoxville’s rise as a clean energy oasis either. Had it not been for people like Bill Lyons, Madeline Rogero, Madeleine Weil, and Susanna Sutherland, the city wouldn’t have been given those critical federal grants and community backing by some immutable law of nature. Knoxville became what it is — a growing regional base of solar energy and energy efficiency — because a few people with verve and a smart strategy decided it would be.

And if they could do it in Knoxville, imagine what could happen elsewhere.

No Rest For The Winners

During my encounter with The Educated Redneck, I made common cause with two of his other victims, Stephani and Ariel. Longtime Knoxvillians of a progressive bent, they were shocked when I told them I was in town to do a story on Knoxville’s impressive work on sustainability.

“My boyfriend works on that stuff,” said Ariel, clearly confused. “And I had no idea.”

Knoxville’s clean energy story isn’t well-known. Part of the reason, at least among clean energy advocates, is that when compared to, say, New York and Portland, Knoxville isn’t exactly ahead of the curve. All of the accomplishments I’ve listed, as impressive as they are, have to be understood in context of the city’s archly conservative environs.

Local clean energy advocates, regardless, aren’t yet satisfied. “Susan has been generally good at picking up that sort of low-hanging fruit,” said Smith, clearly referring to Susanna (he made that mistake consistently throughout our interview). “Madeline is a very progressive individual in a very conservative town, OK? She did not get where she is by wearing her progressivism way out front on stuff.”

“I don’t think we have yet seen Madeline’s potential to do what she’s capable of doing, let me put it that way.”

Smith has some ideas for what he’d like to see Rogero go after, which he refers to as “big asks:” a new solar energy growth target and an attempt to replace members of the Knoxville Utility Board who aren’t pushing the municipal utility to make faster strides on renewables. He admits, though, they haven’t gone after any of their big asks as of yet: “We’re somewhat to blame for that because we’ve had some bigger fish to fry.”

McKinney, the UT biologist and city sustainability adviser, had similar thoughts. “I think what they’re doing is promising, the rate at which they’re improving is encouraging,” he said, with just a touch of condescension. He did venture, however, that “they do a great job with the resources they have.”

I pressed Smith on this comparative point: How does Knoxville look relative to other similarly conservative cities in the region?

There was a long pause.

“There’s actually a good story between Knoxville, Nashville and Chattanooga if you want to tell all of them,” he offered, a rather — given Knoxville and Knox County’s markedly right-wing bent — unconvincing defense of his dourness.

It’s important to understand precisely why criticisms like McKinney’s and Smith’s ring false because they’re right in one key sense: Knoxville’s emissions reductions aren’t good enough yet. City government emissions, where the biggest reductions have been concentrated, represented only about 1.5 percent of the total Knoxville 2005 emissions baseline. While Sutherland’s numbers show that non-government community emissions have also declined, by about three percent, the city would have to reduce non-government emissions by almost that much (2.5 percent) every year to reach the 20 percent reduction target they laid out in 2008. That seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, Knoxville’s story is real cause for hope. A huge part of the reason Knoxville hasn’t successfully reduced community-wide emissions is because they depend on things — like car fuel-efficiency and the state of the state-level and TVA-wide renewables industry — that are outside the city’s control. But where the city had full authority, like municipal buildings and recycling, it made tremendous progress. It even expanded into infrastructure, through moves like the solar industry training initiatives and the electric vehicle charging stations, that can influence the broader community outside of areas where Knoxville had regulatory authority.

Knoxville, in short, is a concrete example of how a city can make the most of the limited power it has given the scale and complexity of the climate problem. Knoxville’s efforts have, by Sutherland’s calculation, amounted to reductions on the scale of taking 141,000 average cars off the road. If we dismissed every small scale effort to reduce emissions because it didn’t do enough, then there wouldn’t be a single local emissions reduction program worth lauding.

But Knoxville shines brightest as a political beacon. The steps taken in the past several years would have been unthinkable as recently as 2005. The denizens of one of the country’s most conservative regions have been sold, with virtually no backlash, on the necessity of taking action to reduce our carbon footprint through a combination of smart politicking and smart legislating that, in its implementation, proved that taking action could actually improve the Knoxville community. That a combination of economic and environmental arguments sold Knoxville on action to fight climate change suggests that the fires fueling the implacable national opposition to real climate action could be tamed. Maybe, just maybe, climate activism can work.

This transformation in attitudes on the local level also could improve the emissions forecast, as it translates into political ground more receptive to an ambitious climate agenda. The city’s leaders, well aware of this, are busy planning for the future. In 2012, Mayor Rogero made Knoxville the first city in Tennessee to enroll in the Federal Better Buildings Challenge, a comprehensive effort to reduce both public and private building energy use by 20 percent. The city, for its part, plans to retrofit roughly 2 million square feet of public buildings by 2020, but the bulk of the effort will focus on Knoxville’s creaky private housing stock.

The view from Mayor Rogero’s office. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)
The view from Mayor Rogero’s office. (Credit: Zack Beauchamp/ThinkProgress)

Knoxville is also one of seven cities (alongside ones as progressive as Buffalo and Burlington) to get a grant this year from IBM’s Smarter Cities Program, aimed at making low-income housing more energy-efficient to both reduce the financial burden on the poor and CO2 emissions. Though the city was a finalist for, but not a winner of, a $5 million dollar Bloomberg grant to make their agriculture base more sustainable and local, they’re going to simply implement the proposed plan with their own money. And those are only the big grant programs — at the meeting I attended, Sutherland announced a raft of new initiatives programs targeting the community-wide sectors like transportation where Knoxville has shown the least improvement in CO2 emissions. All of this work sits on top of the ongoing PlanET effort to address broader Knoxville metro area sprawl in tandem with outlying counties.

Nevertheless, she isn’t satisfied yet. “There’s so much more to be done,” Sutherland said, with a gleam in her eye. “Our country is incredibly far behind the rest of the world, and our region is so far behind the rest of the country. So none of us can afford to be pleased with our progress.” The gleam intensifies when I ask her about the scale of the climate challenge. Cities are “the biggest carbon producers, and yet we have the most control over carbon … I’m a doer, and when I die, I want to look back and say I did everything I could do.”

But there’s hope buried under that fire. “I know this town,” Sutherland said, “and once they decide to work together and put their heads to it, good things happen.”

Oddly, I know what she means. When I met Mayor Rogero at her office, she, Bill Lyons, and Jesse Mayshark, their communications manager, were struggling over a blog post. A former mayor had been badmouthing Rogero on a local web forum, and the team had written a rare response under the mayor’s name. Mayshark and Lyons — or, as they sometimes called him, the “senior explainer of all things” — were attempting to explain to Rogero how to use the publishing software. She was struggling.

“What do I do now?” she asked. They both answered at once.

Andrew Breiner contributed graphics for this piece.
Zack Beauchamp

Zack Beauchamp

Zack Beauchamp is a reporter/blogger for He previously contributed to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish at Newsweek/Daily Beast, and has also written for Foreign Policy and Tablet magazines. Zack holds bachelors degrees in philosophy and political science from Brown University and a masters in international relations from the London School of Economics. He grew up in Washington, DC.