Climate Change in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA

This page is about the changing climate and energy transition in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA. Students in Knoxville create and update its content. SeeΒ City Editors.

1.0 How the climate is changing and impacting Knoxville

2.0 Knoxville city leaders + the climate

3.0 Knoxville politicians + the climate

4.0 University of Tennessee Knoxville + the climate

5.0 Climate organizations in Knoxville

6.0 Knoxville’s local energy transition

1.0 If you’re a long-time Knoxville resident, you’ve probably noticed some changes in the local climate

Knoxville’s changing climate

Humid Subtropical climate” is the scientific name for Knoxville’s very long-standing weather patterns. The area’s emergent climate doesn’t have a name yet.

Climate trends: People, plants and animals in the Tennessee River Valley have thrived in their Humid Subtropical climate for thousands of years. Now, the region is becoming a warmer, wetter (and drier) place. The seasons are changing in noticeable ways

Winter and Spring in Knoxville are warming up faster than the rest of the year. What used to come down as snow is more often coming down as rain.

Wetter AND Drier. Springtimes here have been bringing more and more rain, especially since the early 2000s. But that moisture doesn’t last long. The warmer summers result in the region’s Fall season becoming drier – enough to convert the Tennessee River Valley’s vegetation into highly combustable material.

Weather to expect in Knoxville’s new climate: The region’s extreme rainfall events will more than double in number over the next several decades. Extreme rainfall events will intensify, with greater amounts of rain falling over shorter periods of time (rather than spread more evenly thru the season). In summer, there will be more and more uncomfortably warm / muggy nights. Summer, over time, will become mostly muggy.

Carter, L., A. Terando, K. Dow, K. Hiers, K.E. Kunkel, A. Lascurain, D. Marcy, M. Osland, and P. Schramm, 2018: Southeast. In Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 743–808. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH19

Family Photo courtesy of Cloudfront.net

Rainy Photo courtesy Jim Northcut / Getty Images

Knoxville’s climate is becoming more like the U.S. Deep South

The warmer, wetter climate in southern Mississippi will have shifted 500+ miles to the northeast (to the Knoxville area), in only 60 or so years.

If carbon emissions continue as they are now, Knoxville’s climate in 2080 will be as warm and wet as Southern Mississippi is in the 2020s. That area is 11˚F degrees warmer in the winter and 27% wetter.

Fitzpatrick, M.C., Dunn, R.R. Contemporary climatic analogs for 540 North American urban areas in the late 21st century. Nat Commun 10, 614 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-08540-3

Late winter flooding in Knoxville is getting ridiculous

February & March flooding has become a part of life in Knoxville. Now, it’s getting much more disruptive – and expensive for taxpayers.

This gentleman got stuck in his truck on Ebenezer Road in Knoxville, Feb. 6, 2020. Caitie McMekin / News Sentinel

Extreme February rainfall caused the historic Knoxville Flood of 2019. Over 1,200 homes, hundreds of businesses were under water, and city streets washed away. Residents with kayaks escaped their homes. Drivers stranded in high waters had to be rescued. One person drowned in their car. 2020 and 2021 also brought historically heavy Spring rains and flooding.

Crocker, B. (2021, June 15). The changing climate has made Knoxville hotter, wetter and more expensive. Knoxville News Sentinel. https://eu.knoxnews.com/story/weather/2021/06/16/buying-home-knoxville

Wildfires will torch the Knoxville region more often, and with greater rage

For thousands of years, the forests of future Eastern Tennessee stayed moist enough to keep wildfires to a minimum. Now, not so much.

The Fall season in Eastern Tennessee is becoming drier and drier, creating kindling for out-of-control wildfires.

During Thanksgiving weekend 2016, the Gatlinburg Fire raged through The Great Smoky Mountains, just 35 miles from Knoxville. 47 people lost their lives and 1,684 of structures were destroyed. 14,000 people had to find somewhere else to live. More land burned in this fire than any recorded in the eastern United States.

The Gatlinburg fire was sparked by a downed power line. But scientists attribute the huge area of the fire on unrelenting drought conditions caused climate change. Across the U.S. Southeast, wildfires like Gatlinburg are likely to happen again over the coming decades.

Gabbert, B. (2021, March 18). Analyzing the fire that burned into Gatlinburg. Wildfire Today. https://wildfiretoday.com/2016/12/05/analyzing-the-fire-that-burned-into-gatlinburg/

Photo by Bruce McCamish, 2016

Crazy East Coast climate has comfort-seeking retirees flocking to Tennessee

Climate migration from other parts of the U.S. may be a good or bad impact, depending on Knoxville’s economy and public services.

“We just want to have fun.”

“In Tennessee, we see a large number of people who retired from the Northeast and Midwest, went to Florida and because of the hurricanes and rains and the hottest Summers they’ve ever had, now they’re going to some of the middle states to get away from the changes.” – State Senator Richard Briggs, Knoxville

Briggs, R., Burchett, T., Gill, E., & Kincannon, I. (2020, September 1). Public Policy Challenges in Acting on Climate [Plenary Panel]. 2020 CCL Regional Conference, Knoxville, TN. https://youtube.com/watch?v=XCPJE56I-yk

Photo by Designer Greetings (n.d.). Old Couple on Blue Motorcycle

Tropical bugs started visiting Tennessee. Now they want to stay.

I’m a bee keeper and because of the warmer climate, some of the pests we’re seeing in the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve had these exotic pests like the varroa mites, the hive mites, killer bees – that is starting to risk our food sources.” – State Senator Richard Briggs, Knoxville

Briggs, R., Burchett, T., Gill, E., & Kincannon, I. (2020, September 1). Public Policy Challenges in Acting on Climate [Plenary Panel]. 2020 CCL Regional Conference, Knoxville, TN. https://youtube.com/watch?v=XCPJE56I-yk

Photo courtesy of Reed Booth

2.0 City leadership in Knoxville is unanimous on climate change

Good thing about cities and towns is they’ll often vote 7-0 on existential things like climate change.

Knoxville city councilors at City-County Hall on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.

Knoxville’s all-sector carbon goal shows a lack of community self confidence

Community pledge: 80% of carbon emissions across all Knoxville sectors will be cut by 2050. That means by 2050, the Knoxville community will still be emitting 20% of what it used to back in 2005. This is in contrast to most cities’ goal of 100% elimination of carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner.

City pledge: 50% of city government emissions will be cut by 2030.

Already 1/5 of the way there. Knoxville’s initial (2008) carbon goal was to cut city government emissions “20% by 2020.” True to its word, the City’s very first carbon pledge was fulfilled. Serious, uninterrupted progress by City leaders makes it likely that the City of Knoxville can also meet its “50% by 2030” emissions goal.

These targets are baselined from Knoxville’s 2005 carbon emissions.

Photo by knoxnews.com Mattheis, C. (2021, July 14). Knoxville City Council meets July 13, 2021. Knoxville News. https://eu.knoxnews.com/picture-gallery/news/2021/07/13/knoxville-city-council-meets-july-13-2021/7959079002/

Graphic by Local Climate.org, CC BY 4.0

Progress so far (2022) on Knoxville’s Great Decarbonization

Bad News: Knoxville residents and businesses have been spewing plenty more carbon into the atmosphere, not less.

Community emissions (from homes, business, industry, and vehicles) have increased 8% since 2005. This increase means Knoxville as a whole have been spewing millions more tons of carbon into the already warming atmosphere.

Knoxville’s city government emissions have decreased 32% since 2005 and is set to improve even more. This decrease means the municipality did not spew many thousands of tons of carbon each year into the atmosphere.

Knoxville Mayor’s new Climate Council seems off to a good start

Mayor Kincannon gathered her new “Mayor’s Climate Council” in early 2020.

Knoxville Mayor’s Climate Council is an advisory task force of people from local business, the electric utility, universities, neighborhood associations, climate groups, and the faith community. In Fall 2021, it’s exploring the successes of other cities in planning for climate change. Knoxville is considering strategies like community solar farms, community adoption of electric vehicles, and reducing restaurant food waste.

Brian Blackmon, Knoxville’s Sustainability Director

Equitable Climate Planning in Knoxville: Mayor’s Climate Council has an “Equity Working Group” whose guiding question is, “How can the City advance climate goals while supporting the specific needs of the most vulnerable in our community?

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, & Watson, B. (2020, May 14). Knoxville mayors climate council holds first meeting. Cleanenergy.Org. https://cleanenergy.org/blog/knoxville-mayors-climate-council-holds-first-meeting

City of Knoxville. (2021). Mayor’s Climate Council. Knoxvilletn.Gov. https://knoxvilletn.gov/government/city_departments_offices/sustainability/mayor_s_climate_council

Webinar, K. O. C. I. S. (2021, May 18). Mayor’s Climate Council – May 17, 2021 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-_6xi2Qk34

Kincannon photo courtesy WJHL TV

City of Knoxville’s “Energy & Sustainability Work Plan” is not a Climate Action Plan. Serious cities have a climate action plan.

The Knoxville Sustainability Work Plan shows city officials’ well-informed vision. But will it lead to a Knoxville Climate Action Plan?

No less than 65 local experts advised the City on its updated (2021) Sustainability Work Plan. They identified buildings, transportation, and waste management as areas where the city can most reduce emissions. The work plan does not specify actual projects; but city departments will move forward with City these climate priorities in mind.

In the Buildings category, the City wants to help the community replace existing fossil furnaces with electric heat pump technologies. The city also wants to incentivize energy upgrades in 20% of Knoxville commercial and multi-family buildings.

Knoxville has a history of success with energy efficiency programs, starting in 2011 with Knoxville Utility Board’s “Round It Up,” Tennessee Valley Authority’s “Home UpLift,” and the 2016-2017 Knoxville “Extreme Energy Makeover.” These programs reduced energy use and lowered energy costs in more than 1,800 homes in the Knoxville area.

City of Knoxville. (2021, May). City of Knoxville 2021 Energy & Sustainability Work Plan.

City of Knoxville’s amazing new LED streetlights

They make the city look great, cost way less, and go easy on the atmosphere

Before (2019) and after (2020) Wall Avenue looking East from Market Square

In 2020, the City of Knoxville upgraded its 30,000+ streetlights to low-energy LED bulbs. This cut the City’s street lighting bill in half (to $2 million/year), and reduced the City’s carbon emissions by thousands of tons each year. And no more spooky copper streets.

Raucoules, G. (2019, November 15). Knoxville completes installation of over 28000 energy efficient led streetlights. Wate.Com. https://www.wate.com/news/knoxville-completes-installation-of-over-28000-energy-efficient-led-streetlights/

3.0 Knoxville Politicians’ viewpoints on the Climate

Knoxville City Councilors on the climate

Knoxville city councilors are unanimous about carbon pledges, electric city buses and a community solar program.

Seema Singe, Knoxville City Councilor

In the run up to the November 2021 council elections, Knoxville city councilors responded to a question posed by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Do you have any particular stances on nuclear, coal, oil, and fossil gas?”

Tommy Smith, City district 1 : “The cleaner the energy the better, both as a financial steward of the City’s budget and as a resident.”

Seema Singh, City district 3 : “All of the above must be phased out asap, with coal and oil phase-outs as the priorities, replacing with 100% renewables in the next 10 – 20 years.”

Lauren Rider, City district 4: “We are never going to be free of these energy sources.” 

Watson, Brady. cleanenergy.org blog, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Aug 20 2021. cleanenergy.org/blog/where-the-candidates-stand-on-energy-2021-knoxville-city-council/

Photo: Calvin Matthews/News Sentinel

Knox County Commissioner Evelyn Gill is concerned about peoples’ climate disparities.

Can the County do more?

Evelyn Gill, Knox County Commissioner

“Climate change is directly impacting the level of disparities people in the community have … I’ve got to admit, the County has not done as much work [as the City] on climate. We’ve passed one resolution, but there are a lot of things we can do to improve our overall impacts on people.”

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Photo by Citizens’ Climate Lobby

State Senator Richard Briggs knows all about the climate

Knoxville’s state senator says Tennessee’s legislature first has to get real

Richard Briggs, Knoxville’s State Senator

“I was coming back from Nashville and a whole side of a mountain was on fire – a whole two weeks before Gatlinburg caught on fire.”

“Before you can look at solutions, you have to admit there’s a problem. And quite frankly I think that in the Tennessee legislature, that’s the first thing we have to do is admit that climate change is affecting Tennessee and we have to persuade Tenesseeans that climate change does affect us”.

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Photo by Citizens’ Climate Lobby

Tim Burchett voted against a clean power grid and modern infrastructure

Knoxville’s congressman now accepts that climate change is real, and says Capitalism is how to solve it

Knoxville’s U.S. Rep Tim Burchett (TN-2nd) used to be a science denier. But he still votes against the climate.

No!!” The former mayor of Knoxville voted against the Infrastructure Act and Build Back Better act of 2021, calling out the “$66 billion to transfer the power grid to what most people find is unreliable or renewable energy.”

Burchett is silent on whether he’ll vote for a Price on Carbon (H.R.2307). The legislation would put a fee on the carbon content of fuels as a way to slow climate-warming emissions. The local Citizens Climate Lobby has been in touch with the new congressman, educating and asking for his support for a price on carbon.

Knoxville’s U.S. Rep Tim Burchett (TN-2nd)

“You ask the public, ‘is climate change real or not?’ and I say, you know, we’re Capitalists, and we can solve this problem through Capitalism.” – Sept 2020

In Congress, Burchett’s Conservative Climate Caucus supports “free market solutions” to climate change, like trying to filter carbon out of the air, and nuclear energy. The caucus does not support any federal regulation that would reduce carbon emissions.

1. Harris, G. (2021, November 8). All but 2 Democrats voted against the Bi-partisan infrastructure bill bringing millions to TN. WKRN News 2. https://www.wkrn.com/news/all-but-2-democrats-voted-against-the-bi-partisan-infrastructure-bill-bringing-millions-to-tn/

c3newsmag.com/people/tim-burchett/

YouTube.com/watch?v=XCPJE56I-yk

Twitter.com/reptimburchett/status/1362873632385601536 (February 19,2021)

Photos by The Hill, Citizens Climate Lobby

4.0 Knoxville’s universities and colleges + climate change

University of Tennessee has an Energy and Environment Program, at the University’s Center for Public Policy director Dr. Charles Sims

University of Tennessee has a graduate program in Environmental and Climate Sciences.

bredesencenter.utk.edu

Chris Cimino is on the Mayor’s Climate Council

5.0 Climate Organizations in Knoxville

Knoxville’s climate and energy groups are busier than ever going into 2022:

Citizens’ Climate Lobby of Greater Knoxville

This lobbying group has red and blue members. They all want their local politicians in Congress to vote for a price on carbon.

All are welcome to the Greater Knoxville Citizens’ Climate Lobby. If you are interested in our beautiful East Tennessee environment, you are invited to attend our open meetings. You will be greeted respectfully whatever your political leanings.”

This Meeting are on the third Tuesday of each month at 7:00 pm. Go to knoxccl.org

Interfaith Power & Light Knoxville

Holding all life sacred, Knoxville’s diverse faith community focuses on just public policy to solve the climate crisis.

Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) works at the crossroads of spiritual power and local climate policy. This intersectional faith group advocates for transformative climate protection in cities across the United States. Knoxville’s IPL chapter works with other local groups to shape Metro Knoxville’s decarbonization policies, with emphasis on protecting vulnerable communities. IPL Knoxville helps East Tennessee houses of worship reduce their carbon footprints, and integrate Earth care into community life. Facebook page: @EastTNEarthRise

Sunrise Movement Knoxville

If you see a march or rally going on in Knoxville, it’s probably the Sunrise Movement. You’ll probably see someone you know there.

Knoxville resident Alex Pulsipher at Sunrise Movement’s Market Square climate rally on August 15, 2021. He and hundreds of others want the Tennessee Valley Authority to speed up their efforts to produce only clean electricity.

Sunrise Movement Knoxville is an action group that stands up to government and corporate inaction on carbon emissions. They hold periodic climate rallies including a “Good Jobs for All” rally every April. Sunrise Movement wants everyone to know that a clean-energy economy will give rise to good new jobs.

Knox Climate Action Central

Knoxville climate activist Todd Waterman has maintained this info-rich local climate page since 2017

Knox Climate Action Central (KCAC) is where Knoxville-area climate activists and residents go to learn about local climate meetings, projects, and actions. Go to KCAC to check the date of a local climate meetup, and you’ll also find yourself reading some interesting blog posts. facebook.com/groups/271145729677071

Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED)

Solar Home Groundbreaking

Executive Director Stan Johnson

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy – Knoxville

Held a seminar about the historic 2018 United Nations Climate Change Report.

Knoxnews.com/story/news/2018/12/04/climate-change-assessment-southeast-united-state-east-tennessee/2149550002/

Jay Clark & Maggie Longmire’s Coal Ash Concert

Knoxville has a deadly problem with coal ash. It cost several local workers their lives.

Kn

Workers Memorial Day Kingston cleanup worker tribute

Knox

Kn

6.0 Progress on Knoxville‘s Great Energy Transition (2021)

This section is a chronicle of the Scruffy City’s progress on quickly switching every aspect of local life over to clean electricity.

Check back here over the months and years, and see how well everyone in Knoxville is doing to reach Zero Carbon Emissions. Scientists say most carbon combustion needs to be stopped sometime in the 2030s to keep the atmosphere from becoming unlivable.

Knoxville’s Local Carbon Monsters

Bull Run Fossil Plant and Kingston coal fired power stations are Knoxville’s most potent warmers of the atmosphere. They are causing the climate to change.

Bull Run Fossil Plant, 16 miles outside of Knoxville, has been burning 6,600 tons of coal each day since it was ignited back in 1962. Bull Run spews up to 2.5 million tons of CO2 each year. The plant will be shut down in December 2023, “due to high energy costs,” according to its operator, the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Kingston Fossil Plant is

Clean Line Transmission Project might be coming to the Knoxville region

Huge amounts of wind energy can come to East Tennessee if this special new transmission line ever gets built. Then, Knoxville’s carbon emissions will start to quickly go down.

The Clean Line Transmission Project would bring wind energy to the southeastern US – enough to power several large cities. This project would be a major component in the effort to slow climate change because In 2021, the southern states burn vast amounts of coal and fossil gas to make electricity. The U.S. Tennessee Valley Authority said it would make a decision on the project in 2021, but as of January 2022 the giant regional agency has made no announcement.

Cleanenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/TIPL-Support-of-Clean-Line.pdf

Photo by Power Grid International

Tuckahoe Community

Knoxville’s Alex Pulsipher is developing a sustainable community on 70 acres of rugged forested land outside of Knoxville. His company Tuckahoe is using technologies and practices that allow the new community to be minimally impactful on the local ecosystem.

Linkedin.com/alex pulsipher

SEEED’s Solar Home groundbreaking

KUB is developing a Community Solar Project