CIH Spotlight: James Marlow

Aug 25, 2023

The Georgia Cleantech Innovation Hub’s ‘Spotlight’ Series aims to showcase leaders, companies and entrepreneurs making a difference for Cleantech, climate tech, and sustainability in Georgia. Southface is a nonprofit with the mission to promote sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities through education, research, advocacy, and technical assistance.

Tell us about Southface and its mission.

Southface is a 45-year-old nonprofit that does work in sustainability and resiliency. We do a lot of work in the built environment. We work in clean transportation, and our goal is to make these solutions work for everyone everywhere, so we’re expanding our work in underserved communities, in affordable housing, and in rural areas. We’ve created groundbreaking programs like EarthCraft. We’ve helped certify over 56,000 buildings, 23,000 of which are affordable housing units. We’ve trained over 16,000 students in building science and trade skills like certifying energy ratings and sizing HVAC equipment. We do work in advocacy. We do some primary research; for example, we’re doing really interesting work right now with the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Initiative and the Atlanta Regional Commission studying the electric energy flows in Metro Atlanta. We do a lot of cool and interesting stuff.

How did you end up in this role?

I have known about Southface for a very long time. Actually, when I was in high school in 1978, I wanted to do a term paper on solar energy. At that time, you didn’t go to Google – it hadn’t been invented yet – so you would write letters. I wrote letters to the Department of Energy, and I also wrote letters to this brand new organization that had just started. I don’t even know how I got its address, but it was called Southface.

My path crossed again with the organization in the 1990s, when I helped raise money for Southface as a board member of the Environmental Fund for Georgia and Earthshare. In the 2000s I was co-founder and CEO of Radiant Solar. We did a lot of solar work at Southface; we reconstituted the solar energy association here. In fact, many organizations have been founded at Southface, such as the Georgia Chapter of US Green Building Council and of course,  EarthCraft had a really positive impact on LEED. We do a lot of work with LEED and the US Green Building Council to this day.

We were the founder of Clean Cities, which is an organization that works on alternative fuel vehicles, including EVs. There are now over 100 of those organizations that are funded by the Department of Energy. We continue to host Clean Cities Georgia here, and we’re doing a nice summit meeting there at Georgia Tech coming up in September that’s going to be a lot of fun. It will be the 30th anniversary of that work.

A fun fact is that the very first public presentation on the Atlanta BeltLine was hosted by Southface. It’s one of many, many instances of Southface connecting, convening, pulling people together in collaboration around new technologies, around sustainability. People have described Southface sometimes as a teaching hospital, as we have trained and been thought leaders on so much of the sustainability work. Other people have described us as a town hall or town center, for these and programs like the Sustainability in Action Roundtable and Greenprints, and now, our Southface Sessions Leadership Speaker Series and our annual Visionary Dinner all bring people together and foster networking, ideas, and innovation in this space.

I started last May, a year and two months, and I’ve really enjoyed my time here. We are an organization of about 50 people with our consultants; we have around an $8M budget. We are not a small organization. We’re not a big organization, either, but for organizations doing sustainability work and training and technical services and advocacy, we are significant. We’ve done lots of work in Atlanta, in Georgia, in the Southeast, in this climate zone. We have a dedicated office in Sarasota, Florida, and we’ve done great work there. One of our most important programs is our GoodUse program for nonprofits, through which we’ve completed more than 550 projects in 29 states, providing financial and technical assistance to improve nonprofit facilities. We help them upgrade their lighting, upgrade their HVAC and insulation, and enhance their building operations. They typically save around 30-34 percent on their energy and water costs monthly and they’re able to invest the savings right back into their mission and program. That impacts food banks, historic theaters, Boys & Girls Clubs, the Salvation Army, and many others. We’ve done work with larger organizations like Georgia Aquarium and the Fox Theatre Institute. We helped the Fox upgrade 5,500 LED light bulbs, and we now help theaters throughout the region to do the same thing so that they can maintain their buildings and deliver even more rich programming for the arts for their communities.

What excites you about the clean energy space in Georgia?

Well, there’s so much going on. Right now you‘ve got 28,000 EV manufacturing jobs and electric device storage and reprocessing jobs. I think it’s probably around 55,000 climate tech or clean tech jobs if we really accounted for all of them. You’ve got manufacturing of solar panels and Qcells up in Dalton, over 3,000 employees there. You’ve got people making batteries in Commerce, Georgia. You’ve got Rivian coming to Covington/Conyers. You’ve got Hyundai/Kia in Brian county and of course in southwest Georgia. We’ve got e-bikes being made by Edison Bike. We’re looking at technologies like mass timber. The new building going up in Ponce City Market is a really great example; if you are here in Metro Atlanta, driving by that is a great way to see the future of efficient wooden building materials, which keep the money local. One of my big themes is the economic advantages of these jobs. The Wall Street Journal calls us the battery belt. There are lots and lots of advantages to keeping this money in our city, region, state, and country.

We’ve just got all the ingredients. We’ve got over a thousand people who work on energy at Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech is really the foundation of this work. We’ve also got lots of great people coming out of HBCUs and Emory and the Georgia technical network. We’ve got a great state to do business in and we have all the ingredients to do this at a radically larger scale.

How can an organization like the Cleantech Innovation Hub help in this space?

I think the CIH is a really critical component of our ecosystem. As we’ve seen in Greentown Labs in Boston and Greentown Houston, LACI in Los Angeles (to name just a few of my favorites; there are others), these organizations are creating jobs and connecting entrepreneurs to funding, connecting potential employers to grad students who want to do this work. Something like the Cleantech Innovation Hub can help make Georgia, like many of our other sectors, like Fintech or Cybertech or Marketingtech, a national and global leader. This is something we’ve been talking about for some time; I remember we started initiatives with the Technology Association of Georgia and other special interest groups to try to start this over the years. The Cleantech Innovation Hub is just the most modern and most impactful of those organizations.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?

Rule one in innovation is talk to everybody and really be well informed. I’ve met so many people over the past 15, 16 years who do a little bit of web searches, and they do one or two events and they drink the kool aid, and they want to get involved, but they don’t want to do the work, they don’t really want to get into the science, into the technology get involved in these organizations where you get to know people really well. You can’t really learn a space unless you are really in it. Reading about it is insufficient. As I prefer to say, “You really have to be a practitioner.”


Get to Know James

What company or individual do you admire the most?

One of my new favorite heroes is Mary Musgrove, who was an interpreter and diplomat and founder of the state of Georgia. She was a business person and entrepreneur, and she ended up owning some of the barrier islands.

What is a hobby that you have?

Something I’m doing right now – I try to learn something every day. I’m doing a project called: “The most beautiful walk in the world”. I’m walking all the Georgia barrier islands and trying to spend the night on all of the islands and learn about the history, culture  and the ecosystem and ecology. I’ve tried to be in the islands in all types of weather and all kinds of seasons. I’m experiencing the Georgia coast and learning about it in a really deep manner.

What is your favorite place in Georgia?

I would have to say the Georgia coast. I love the mountains. I’ve spent time in southwest Georgia and the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. Georgia is a big state and it is a very diverse state, and there’s lots to learn. There’s the city, and I have a family farm in Lincolnton, Georgia, but if you asked me for my favorite, I’d have to say the Georgia coast. When you get calm and hear the water calling, that’s my favorite thing. Every day you see a dolphin is a good day.

What have you read recently?

One of the books I recommend is the Ministry of the Future. It’s a near term science fiction novel. It’s not for everybody, but if you really want to see what the world could be like, what some of those outcomes could be – I learned a lot about glaciology,. Another book that I have really enjoyed is actually a textbook, The Fundamentals of Ecologyby Professor Odom at University of Georgia, where the School of ecology is named after him. He also spent a lot of time on the Georgia coast and worked at the research station there at Sapelo Island. Learning about how it’s all connected, and how we need to think about it interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary and really just try to see the whole picture. I’m a huge fan of EO Wilson’s theory about half earth; I think we need to preserve half the earth if we are going to make it as a species. We have a huge species die off happening in species loss that We’ve got to curtail and we have to protect and the most important half first, and so places like the Longleaf pines and the Georgia coast are all really precious ecosystems and we really need to commit those resources. I’d like to see the state have a new park every year as people participate every year.