ATLANTA – Georgia Power’s latest plan for meeting the electrical-generation needs of its customers would keep the Atlanta-based utility on a path toward relying less on burning coal and more on renewable energy.
But environmental and consumer advocates are asking the state Public Service Commission to require Georgia Power to do more when the PSC votes July 21 on the utility’s 2022 Integrated Resource Plan, an update the company submits every three years outlining its planned mix of energy sources for the next two decades.
Specifically, the plan’s critics want the commission to order Georgia Power to:
- Retire two coal-burning units at Plant Bowen near Cartersville, in addition to other coal units at Bowen and several other power plants around the state the utility already is proposing to close in the IRP.
- Reject at least one of six natural gas power purchasing agreements Georgia Power plans to pursue.
- Double the commitment the utility made in the resource plan to develop an additional 2,300 megawatts of solar power.
- Lift a cap limiting Georgia Power’s rooftop solar pilot project to 5,000 customers.
- Reinstitute Georgia Power’s commitment in the IRP it submitted last January to a 1,000-megawatt battery storage project, which the utility dropped last month in an agreement with the PSC’s Public Interest Advocacy Staff.
- Reject Georgia’s Power’s plan for closing its network of coal ash ponds, which would leave some ash stored in unlined pits in contact with groundwater.
If the commission approves the plan in its current form, Georgia Power would fall short of its own stated long-term goals, a coalition of leaders of college student-run organizations across the state focused on environmental issues wrote in a statement submitted to the commission July 2.
“While our current expansion of clean energy provides us hope, it is not moving nearly fast enough to avoid climate change’s worst impacts,” the students wrote.
“Their plan will maintain our heavy reliance on fossil fuels for the next 20 years, despite [Georgia Power parent] Southern Company’s commitment to net-zero emissions.”
Georgia Power should go all-in on its plan to retire its fleet of coal-burning power plants, including the two units at Plant Bowen, because they’re simply not economical in today’s era of stricter government regulation of carbon emissions, Robert Jackson, a lawyer for the Sierra Club, told members of the PSC’s Energy Committee July 14.
But doing away with the entire coal plant fleet got some pushback during that hearing from Clay Jones, a lawyer for the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, one of the parties that signed on to last month’s agreement.
“You’re already approving a significant retirement of coal assets,” Jones told commissioners. “We believe maintaining Bowen Units 1 and 2 provides a key hedge against overreliance on volatile natural gas prices.”
Katie Southworth, advocacy program director at the Atlanta-based sustainability organization Southface Energy Institute, said if Georgia Power continues operating the two coal units at Plant Bowen beyond 2027, it wouldn’t need the gas power purchasing agreements.
The Sierra Club is calling on the PSC to require Georgia Power to double its commitment to renewable energy sources including solar and wind power.
But Simon Mahan, executive director of the Southern Renewable Energy Association, said an inadequate transmission system is an obstacle to Georgia Power significantly expanding its portfolio of renewables.
“The company is having difficulty retiring uneconomic power plants without a robust transmission system,” he said. “Building transmission would better enable the commission to adopt more low-cost renewables sooner rather than later.”
Jill Kysor, a lawyer representing the Atlanta-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said another obstacle to the expansion of renewables in Georgia is the cap on Georgia Power’s rooftop solar program. She suggested doing away with cap entirely rather than raising it from the current 5,000 customers.
“If the cap is increased but the number is too small, we’ll just have a rush into the program,” Kysor said. “Certain types of customers, like churches or middle-income families, that take longer to make decisions won’t be able to react quickly and get into the program.”
The PSC debated the cap issue last year when the program proved so popular the number of participating customers was threatening to bump up against the cap.
Brandon Marzo, a lawyer representing Georgia Power, said lifting the cap on the rooftop solar program would lead to an unacceptable shifting of costs to customers not participating in the program.
“You’re going to ask customers who are not providing the service to pay for it,” Marzo told commissioners during the July 14 hearing.
Brad Carver, a lawyer representing the Large-Scale Solar Association, asked the PSC not to let Georgia Power back away from its January proposal to develop 1,000 megawatts of power through innovative battery storage technology.
After the utility raised concerns over whether the project’s potential benefits would justify the cost, the project was dropped in the agreement reached last month.
“Investments in storage are the way to help our transmission constraints,” Carver said.
Jackson asked commissioners not to let Georgia Power leave the coal ash in some of the ash ponds it is planning to close in unlined pits in contact with groundwater, a practice he said is illegal under both state and federal law.
The Sierra Club fought Georgia Power’s two-pronged plan to remove the ash from some ponds and leave it in place in others all the way to the state Supreme Court, which has declined to hear the case.
“Closure in place and closure by removal are acceptable and protective of human health and the environment if performed correctly,” Marzo said.
At the July 14 hearing, Marzo urged commissioners not to make any changes in the stipulation agreement reached last month.
“All the provisions in the stipulation have been negotiated,” he said. “Any change in one provision could affect the balance of the bargain.”
But Commissioner Tim Echols noted the PSC has a history of changing Georgia Power IRPs.
“In every single IRP that we’ve had since 2013, this commission has done more solar than you all wanted to do,” Echols told Marzo.
At the end of the hearing, Echols hinted that rooftop solar could be among the changes the PSC imposes on the utility. He said raising the cap on the program to 75,000 customers would generate 500 megawatts of solar power in the more populated northern half of Georgia.
“That would allow us to get some additional solar on the grid north of I-20,” he said. “Wouldn’t that help with reliability in North Georgia?”
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.