ATLANTA – Georgia Power is expected to announce the next step toward reducing its dependence on coal Monday when it unveils its latest long-term plan for electrical generation.
The Atlanta-based utility releases an updated Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) every three years outlining the sources of power generation it intends to rely on to meet customer demands for the next 20 years. The IRP is subject to approval by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC).
Georgia Power tipped its hand in November when Tom Fanning, CEO of Georgia Power parent Southern Co., announced plans to close most of Georgia Power’s coal-burning units at plants Scherer, Bowen and Wansley.
“We expect to see that in the IRP,” said Neil Sardana, Georgia organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
For the last decade, the debate between Georgia Power and environmental advocates hasn’t been over whether the utility should use less coal for power generation but how large the reduction should be.
Market forces, technological progress and the political climate have combined to make carbon pollution-emitting coal less tenable for Georgia Power and other utilities across the country.
After Georgia Power submitted its last IRP in 2019, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy called for the company to take a more aggressive approach toward weaning itself from coal.
“Given how much more renewable energy has progressed in terms of cost and efficiency, there is significant room for expansion of clean energy.” Sardana said. “Renewable energy – solar in particular – is getting to the point where it’s affordable. Massive amounts of solar could be brought into the grid and still remain competitive.”
Pro-coal former President Donald Trump gave coal a respite by issuing an executive order repealing the Clean Power Plan imposed during the Obama administration, which ordered utilities to reduce carbon emissions. But President Joe Biden set an ambitious goal during his first year in office with a plan calling for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030.
With the writing on the wall when it comes to coal, the PSC has encouraged Georgia Power to commit more resources to renewable energy.
In its 2019 IRP vote, the commission required the utility to add 2,210 megawatts of renewable power to its portfolio of electricity generating sources, just more than double the 1,000 additional megawatts Georgia Power had proposed.
As a result, Georgia has cracked the Top 10 among the states in solar installations and ranked No. 1 in solar jobs growth in 2019, according to The Solar Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
While Georgia Power’s increased investment in renewable energy in the 2019 IRP represented a continuation of an earlier commitment, the utility made its initial foray into battery storage technology.
Georgia Power initially offered to develop 50 megawatts of energy using battery storage, and the PSC later increased that target to 80 megawatts.
The biggest obstacle to development of renewable energy has been its intermittent nature. Solar energy can only be generated when it’s sunny, while wind energy requires wind.
Saldana said battery storage solves that issue, and he’s looking to Georgia Power to double down on the technology in the new IRP.
“Batteries are going to be what allows us to truly mainstream the move to solar,” he said.
Saldana said an effective distributed network of battery storage also would help prevent major power outages, which not only inconvenience customers but impact local economies.
The PSC will hold hearings on Georgia Power’s 2022 IRP during next few months, with a vote likely this summer.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.