The tale of an unexpected solar city: Knoxville, Tennessee

By Graham Marema
Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Digital Organizer

Local leaders can lead the way on solar

Knoxville's Sunsphere
Photo: Jody McIntyre via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

When you think of places leading the way on environmental sustainability, a city in the hills of East Tennessee probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind.

I grew up 20 miles outside of Knoxville, Tenn., and even in the heart of a red state, it doesn’t surprise me that Knoxville is working to embrace clean solar energy -- and not just because we’re home to the iconic Sunsphere. The blue, rolling shoulders of the Smokies fill the region with a strong connection to the earth, and tapping into energy sources that protect our beautiful places is something imbued in every East Tennesseean.

That’s why I was proud to learn that Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero has signed on as one of Environment America's Mayors for Solar Energy. These 300 mayors form a bipartisan coalition of local leaders from every state and one U.S. territory, who are committed to encouraging the growth of solar energy in their communities.

Since taking office in 2011, Mayor Rogero has made sustainability a priority for the city. She’s advanced solar, green buildings and energy efficiency throughout Knoxville. This year, she and city leaders converted more than 28,000 streetlights into energy-efficient LED bulbs, making Knoxville one of the first cities in the Southeast to convert all of its streetlights to LED lighting.

"We're making it better for our environment,” Mayor Rogero said about the initiative. “We're cleaning up our environment with these lights, and we're saving taxpayers money." 

Local leadership like this is a powerful driver on the path to 100 percent renewable energy. By advocating for sustainability and clean energy in their cities, mayors can strengthen communities and improve air quality. They can also play a role in the fight against climate change -- an area Knoxville is making great progress on.

In 2008, the city set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020. When it became apparent that they were well on their way to meeting that benchmark, they set two more: 50 percent reduction by 2030 and 80 percent reduction by 2050.

It’s an amazing sight, watching solar panels become commonplace around the city I know so well. Seeing their blue surfaces shining against a backdrop of our blue mountains makes me excited for a future that works to protect our unique places. Knoxville Middle School, the Knoxville city hall, and local farms already feature rooftop panels -- and more installations are planned in the coming years. Each new panel is a reminder that bold commitments create tangible results.

Solar energy can appeal to everyone, from Californians living by the beach to East Tennesseans who love their mountains. If you check out the Mayors for Solar Energy interactive map, you’ll see that every state -- whether red, blue or somewhere in between -- features local leaders ready to stand up for solar and embrace clean, renewable energy in their community.

I know in my corner of that map, I’m excited to see what else the home of the Sunsphere will do to embrace the power of the sun, for the unique beauty of our region and the health of our planet.

The blue mountains of the southeast
Photo Credit: Graham Marema