By Maggie Lee
Georgia Power will add new renewable energy to its portfolio under a plan unanimously approved Tuesday by state regulators. The company also got approval to wind down more coal-burning units.
The company will add 2,210 megawatts of renewable energy to its mix by 2022. Most of that will come from utility-scale operations, and if past patterns hold, it’ll be solar energy (rather than wind or other renewables.) The company is also shutting down coal units with nearly 1,000 MW of capacity. Plant Hammond, near Rome, will close completely and a coal-burning unit at Plant McIntosh near Savannah will close as well.
The 2,210 MW of new renewables is a little more than double the amount Georgia Power proposed earlier this year, when it first checked in with the Georgia Public Service Commission to make a regularly scheduled update to its long-term power plan.
This will almost double Georgia Power’s renewable capacity, which was already set to be at 2,400 MW by the end of this year.
There’s also an order for an additional 50 MW of biomass — energy from wood pellets produced in south Georgia.
PSC Chairman Bubba McDonald said a federal tax credit makes this an opportune time to install solar.
“We’re looking at the opportunity for the ratepayer [typical customer] to presented with savings through what Congress has adopted with the ITC program, the investment tax credit. We don’t know whether that will be extended or not extended … but it can be taken advantage of now,” McDonald said after the vote.
The ITC is a federal tax credit now worth 30 percent of the cost to install small or large solar systems. Utility-scale solar savings could be passed on to residential customers.
At the beginning of IRP hearings this year, environmental groups had called on the Georgia PSC to speed the shift toward renewable energy and to require Georgia Power do more to help low-income households afford energy-saving efficiency upgrades. The equity argument is that poorer people carry an unfair burden on their power bills — folks who don’t have capital lose out on the efficiency that comes from installing better water heaters and windows and so on.
The PSC did take some efficiency measures. They voted to require more energy savings from existing energy efficiency programs. For example, Georgia Power customers may already get a rebate for things like installing a better water heater at home or installing a more energy-efficient refrigerator in a restaurant, or any one of a number of other upgrades under various programs. The PSC wants to see an increase in those residential and commercial efficiencies by 15 percent. The plan also includes a pilot project to help low-income households make energy-efficient upgrades and pay off the cost over time on their power bills.
Responses from activist groups generally included some praise and some criticism both.
The Sierra Club for one, thinks Georgia Power is phasing out coal much too slowly.
“Our expectations for Georgia Power are much higher than what’s in this final plan. Although this result is more than the company first proposed, it’s still much less than Georgia needs,” said Stephen Stetson, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Georgia.
“Georgia Power’s final plan contains some important, incremental steps toward helping low-income customers save on their electric bills,” said Nathaniel Smith, chief equity officer at the Partnership for Southern Equity. “But because the problem of energy burden in Georgia is so vast, this should be viewed as only the beginning of a much larger push to help burdened customers. We look forward to engaging further with the Commission and Georgia Power to eliminate this source of strain on Georgia’s urban and rural communities.”
Georgia Power endorsed the plan in a press release.
Through the process, “Georgia Power will continue to invest in a diverse energy portfolio including the development of renewable resources in a way that benefits all customers to deliver clean, safe, reliable energy at rates that are well below the national average,” reads a statement from Senior Vice President and Senior Production Officer Allen Reaves.
The changes are part of an update that Georgia Power must do every three years to its Integrated Resource Plan, document that shows how and where the utility plans to generate power in the future. Even if your power bill isn’t from Georgia Power, some of your electricity may be, because it sells power to other utilities.
If environmentalists see the shift away from coal as dangerously slow, state regulators have long been skeptical of technologies they see as untested or unready versus the known cheapness and dependability of coal.
But now the market is clearly changing. Georgia Power’s February proposal said “sustained low gas prices combined with reduced energy demand” are putting economic pressure on coal plants. So now coal plants are closing.