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Amazon's Sustainability Efforts: How It Could Impact What City Gets HQ2

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Amazon choosing HQ2 city 

Last October, cities all over the U.S. scrambled to get their bids in order and their paperwork organized as the deadline to apply as the home of Amazon's new second headquarters in North America loomed. Amazon says they're not leaving Seattle any time soon, but they need another location from which to operate -- preferably a place with a large pool of skilled workers and the infrastructure to support them.

UPDATE (January 18, 2018): Amazon narrowed its list of candidate cities down to 20. Those cities include: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami Montgomery County, Md., Nashville, Newark, New York, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Toronto, Washington, D.C.

But sustainability could play a deciding role in which urban area Amazon eventually selects for its "HQ2." After all, many places in the U.S. fit Amazon's criteria for a city with enough space and educated people to host them. A city's focus on renewable energy and sustainability would look mighty appealing to a corporation like Amazon, which has invested significantly in solar and wind power, among other environmental initiatives.

So which cities or metropolitan areas could hold appeal for Amazon, based on their history of sustainability? Here are a few candidates:


This northern Texas city has a high tech-friendly population and a lower cost of living than many tech-focused cities. It's near a decent-sized airport and has the surrounding area to accommodate a large Amazon campus.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) rated Austin sixth on its 2017 City Energy Efficiency Scorecard -- a three-spot jump from the last time the ratings were compiled in 2015. Part of this is due to the Austin Community Climate Plan, which has set measurable goals to reduce greenhouse gases and energy consumption through 2020. Plus, Austin is looking at cool ways to mesh sustainability and livability, such as by setting goals for tree canopy coverage throughout the city that helps dissipate the heat island effect that plagues more heavily populated areas.

Austin also has plans to create specific energy systems in areas that city officials have designated as "redevelopment zones."


Amazon already has a small presence in the Twin Cities area, having opened a development office in Minneapolis this year. There's an educated base of workers to draw from, though the city has a low unemployment rate due to large existing employers like Target, Best Buy and the Mayo Clinic.

On the sustainability side, Minneapolis has been working for a long time to improve its environmental footprint. It was one of the first cities in the U.S. to work on reducing carbon dioxide, making plans in 1993 to reduce emissions. City officials formed an Environmental Coordinating Team in 1994 to engage all city departments in setting and meeting sustainability goals and reporting results publicly, and these initial efforts were formalized in the city's comprehensive plan by 2005.

Today, Minneapolis continues to improve its environmental practices through creative efforts that include reducing building permit costs for solar projects, building bike paths and encouraging commuting by bicycle and implementing LEED building policies for all government construction projects. The city is 11th on the ACEEE ranking of energy efficient cities; interestingly enough, they've fallen four notches as other cities begin to catch up to their early adoption of environmental policies.


Portland may be close in proximity to Amazon's existing Seattle headquarters, but there's no doubt that the city has the technology-savvy workforce, quality of living and environmental standards that would make it appealing for HQ2.

Portland is fourth on the ACEEE energy efficiency list and boasts a population devoted to environmental causes. Government officials around the region saw signs of urban sprawl and the environmental issues that could arise as far back as the late 70s and formed a regionally elected government -- the only such governing body in the U.S. The Metro government has worked on initiatives to address growth intelligently, promote sustainable energy use and transportation and encourage smart design of living areas. It also manages waste disposal and recycling, acquisition of parks and green spaces and wildlife habitat protection in a tri-county area surrounding Portland.

In addition, the city proper has had Sustainable City Principles in place since the early 1990s. These set goals and track progress toward reducing carbon emissions and energy use, generating renewable energy, recovering and recycling waste products and managing natural spaces.

Portland already has infrastructure in place in its municipal government to assist companies with moving to the area and both building and living green. While the huge project that Amazon promises would require more resources, the city already has much of the structure in place to assist with building a highly sustainable and energy efficient HQ2.


The Atlanta area has the workforce, transportation hub -- it's home one of the country's largest airports -- and great fiber connectivity to comfortably meet all of Amazon's HQ2 requirements. Atlanta city government may have been a bit slower than other larger cities to embrace sustainability, but since 2008 the Office of Sustainability has been working hard to catch up. In fact, the ACEEE ranked the city 18th on its list of energy efficient metropolitan areas.

To work on saving energy and reducing carbon emissions, city officials created the Atlanta Climate Action Plan in 2015. The centerpiece of the plan is to cut greenhouse gases by 1.5 percent each year through 2020, and it looks like Atlanta will comfortably surpass this goal. The city encourages green building techniques and passed a law in 2015 that requires the owners of large commercial structures to benchmark and report energy and water use. Transportation alternatives, including increased bike lanes and promotion of bicycle commuting, are helping the city reduce carbon emissions as well.


Boston could be a top contender for Amazon HQ2 with its big and well-educated population base and connections to top universities like Harvard and MIT. The city has the transportation capabilities and infrastructure to support building an HQ2 campus.

The city is also top ranked in the ACEEE list of energy efficient cities, thanks to plans like Greenovate Boston with fairly strict goals for energy savings and carbon emission reduction. In fact, the plan's goal is for the city to be carbon neutral by 2050. As in Atlanta, commercial building owners are required to report their energy and water use each year. And, the city is looking proactively at how climate change could effect the coastline and temperatures and what measures can be taken to adapt.

Boston is also looking to wind power to generate more of its energy needs. Newly passed zoning laws make it easier to install wind turbines, and state funding helps toward the development of new types of wind blades to increase the ability to harness this type of power. Amazon may very well like the idea of using more wind-based energy to power its new second headquarters.

Of course, Amazon may choose a smaller city, like Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City, where they may have more space for a campus and more power to develop HQ2 exactly as they want it. Amazon could also go outside the U.S. to a Canadian city like Ottawa or Toronto -- their HQ2 specification only says they're looking in North America. Or they could take advantage of the devastation in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico to build from the ground up and take a very active role in developing sustainable policies and infrastructure.

But it would be surprising for Amazon to not look at sustainability and environmental practices as part of their matrix for deciding the best place for HQ2. Those cities with a head start on reducing traditional energy use and greenhouse gases are likely to go to the top of Amazon's very long list of possible locations.

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Posted: November 10, 2017