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David Nifong working on climate goals as Decatur’s first energy and sustainability manager

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David Nifong working on climate goals as Decatur’s first energy and sustainability manager

David Nifong is the city of Decatur's first energy and sustainability manager. Photo submitted by David Nifong.

Decatur, GA — David Nifong will soon celebrate a full year of working with the city of Decatur as the energy and sustainability manager. Nifong is the first person to fill this role for the city, and he works to help Decatur create and implement plans related to energy efficiency, resilience and climate action.

Nifong grew up in Brentwood, Tenn., and come to Georgia in 2015 to attend Oxford College at Emory University. He moved to the Atlanta campus in 2017 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a minor in community building and social change.

Growing up, Nifong’s dad was an officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which helped inspire him to pursue a career in environmental science.

One of his professors at Emory University shared books on environmental thought and the climate, which helped set him in his career direction. Environmental issues include both social and physical challenges. Nifong recognized that through his studies.

“It’s just the recognition that a lot of the challenges that we’re facing are both on a social level and also a physical environmental level, so finding a way to build a physical infrastructure that supports people, but also a social infrastructure that takes care of their environment and the place that they live,” he said. “Doing both, I was able to get into some of that and learn. That’s what I’m trying to do here. There’s still more that we can do, but Decatur’s a great place to try to do that.”

After graduation, he began a fellowship with the city of Decatur through Lead for America became available.

“Lead for America is a relatively new organization,” Nifong said. “I was in that first class of fellows they had. What they try to do is connect recent college graduates with positions of service in communities that they call home or that they’re connected to.”

A composting program has been in the city’s plans for a while. A composting feasibility study was part of the city’s project scope for Lead for America and was the city’s focus at the time. He took on more things as projects came up and as staff members left.

“I actually became the city’s first energy and sustainability manager. It had before been work that had been shared across many different staff members, but this is the first time that there’s ever been a dedicated position for it,” Nifong said.

An item in Decatur’s 2020 strategic plan is creating a curbside composting pilot program for next year.

City Manager Andrea Arnold said the city recognizes the importance of addressing and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“During his Lead for America Fellowship with the city, it became clear that the city would benefit from having someone who would lead and coordinate all sustainability and energy-related efforts,” Arnold said. “Through Mr. Nifong’s efforts, Decatur has emerged as a leader in combating climate change.  Among other projects, he is coordinating the development of a Clean Energy Plan, drafting an Extreme Heat Plan, overseeing the installation of solar panels at the Public Works building and conducting an urban heat island assessment.  The City’s 2020 Strategic Plan identifies an ambitious work program within the core topic of climate action.  For example, the plan calls for a climate action plan, a pilot compost program, and conversion of all city lighting to LED.  Mr. Nifong will be instrumental in working with city staff, community members, and other parties to achieve these goals.”

Nifong and the city staff will soon have a draft plan to share with the community and get additional feedback “to make sure that what we have in there is actually reflective of what they’ve been telling us. We’re looking for adoption of that in hopefully August of this year. Then we’ll move right to implementation,” he said.

The clean energy plan will be the plan to transition city operations and the community to a clean, renewable energy goal set in the plan. That would involve a target like if the city wants to supply all electricity needs with 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030 and whether that would be for city operations or community operations.

“That’s what we’re trying to determine right now with the help from the community,” Nifong said. “The plan is focused on energy efficiency, renewable energy, both production and procurement, and low or zero-emission transportation. That will involve setting some ambitious goals on increasing the amount of trips that are taken by bike or walking or alternative transit.”

“One of the recommendations from the Clean Energy Plan is going to be some sort of creative funding mechanism to support residential and commercial energy efficiency solar projects, and so hopefully we can create that in a way that makes sense for the city,” Nifong added.

Decatur is also part of a coalition of local governments intervening in the integrated resource plan.

“Every three years, Georgia Power presents its plan to our public service commission, which regulates all the investor-owned utilities in the state. That’s their plan for both supply-side and demand-side strategies,” Nifong said.

On the supply side, Georgia Power is looking to retire the majority of its coal fleet and add solar and natural gas. The demand includes energy efficiency programs.

“Decatur is intervening with the city of Atlanta, the city of Savannah, DeKalb County, and Athens-Clarke County to advocate for some shared priorities to lower barriers to solar and battery storage for residents and customers [and] align Georgia Power’s programs with the needs cities are having, especially as we’re adopting these 100% clean, renewable goals and make some improvements to their energy efficiency programs, so we can save folks some money, improve their home comfort and hopefully keep them in their homes for longer,” Nifong said.

Construction will soon begin on the city’s public works building to install the solar portion of the solar and battery project.

“That’s going to be a 105-kilowatt array on our roof with a battery that’s about 320 kilowatt-hours. That is being supported by a grant from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority. We started that process with them way back in 2020, and it was initially just a technical assistance grant, but that transitioned into full-blown funding for the system,” Nifong said.

He also hopes to put out a request for proposals soon for the solar project at the Decatur Recreation Center, which Decatur recently received federal funding for.

With the recreation center and public works building, those projects are going to generate monetary savings, Nifong said.

As for ways the community can participate in sustainability efforts, Nifong encourages people to look at Georgia Power rebates for energy efficiency improvements, be more conscious about when running appliances, walk or bike for at least one trip whenever possible and attend the environmental sustainability board meetings.

“The city always strives — maybe sometimes we fall short — [to lead] by example and really catalyze the community and the region in their efforts,” he said. “One of our vision statements in the 2020 strategic plan is to innovate and inspire others. I think that’s one hope, also, as we learn lessons from these projects, hopefully we can improve our own permitting system and other items to help residents and businesses also embark on similar projects.”

The city is exploring an opportunity to get an additional Lead for America fellow for a one-year placement beginning next year, and has submitted an application to the Atlanta Regional Commission for their sustainable connections internship program.

“I’m looking forward to training some new folks, even if they are temporary, and hoping to support them as they look at a potential career in public service while also making some progress on the city’s goals,” Nifong said. “The clean energy plan is wrapping up, but we’re also moving to the downtown master plan, the parks and recreation master plan and these other big ticket items that the city has, so continuing to find ways to incorporate sustainability, resilience and climate action into those projects.”

He’s also looking forward to accomplishing the goals and tasks in the 2020 strategic plan and working with Agnes Scott College to implement the climate resilience plan.

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