State regulators will hold hearings soon on Georgia Power’s energy plans for the next two decades. Those plans will dictate how quickly Georgia’s largest utility moves away from fossil fuels, affecting the state’s contribution to climate change and with repercussions for the coal and solar industries.

This story also appeared in WABE

Before those hearings get started, the commissioners decided to hold a town hall – a departure from past planning processes, where public comment was allowed at the beginning of the official proceedings.

The Thursday town hall was open to anyone with a comment or a question on anything the Georgia Public Service Commission regulates, including natural gas companies and landline telephones, but the vast majority of the people there wanted to talk about electricity.

A couple were there to say they want to see coal plants stay open.

“These plants have been the workhorses of Georgia’s economy for longer than many of us have been around,” said Jathan Turner, an industrial journeyman mechanic electrician and assistant business manager of IBEW Local 84, which represents electrical workers in the state. “Not only are they critical to baseload generation, but they also make up an important part of the tax base in communities where they operate.”

Georgia Power’s Plant Bowen, near Cartersville, is one of the largest coal-fired plants in the country.

But most were more in line with what retired school librarian Barbara Powell-Schager shared.

“It’s really important for us to make this quick transition to solar and wind in order for us to not experience the worst effects of climate change,” she said.

Doctor Preeti Jaggi, a pediatrician from Decatur, said her patients are already affected by climate change, and Atlanta is projected to have many more very hot days per year.

“This is particularly difficult for the elderly, this is particularly infants and for teenagers,” she said. “We want these teens to be outside, experiencing life outside safely.” 

Georgia Power has proposed closing its remaining coal units and adding solar power, though there can be a gap between what the utility proposes in its Integrated Resource Plan and what the PSC ultimately signs off on.

Solar supporters also pushed at the town hall to expand a program that makes rooftop solar panels a better deal for homeowners. While Georgia is a top-ten state for solar in the country, most of that is in large solar farms, and rooftop solar on homes and businesses has been slow to expand.

Rooftop solar installation in the Savannah area. Credit: Creative Solar USA

And then there were bills.

“You can’t hear people’s pain,” said Deborah Opie, with Georgia Conservation Voters. “You have organizations like mine, you have churches that constantly cover and help people maintain their services. There is a gap, and there could possibly even be a gulf where people fall through the cracks.”

There is a federally funded program that helps people pay their bills. Opie said some people may not be poor enough to qualify for it, but still need that help. She said people she’s talked to people who use less energy by cooking less or lowering their thermostats in the winter, or who skip buying medications to pay their bills instead.

“Seniors are suffering unnecessarily,” Gloria Woods said to the commissioners. “You have heard the stories. You know gas and food is at an all-time high.”

She said, she thinks the commissioners should lower Georgia Power bills with programs to help people use less energy, by reigning in the costs of the new nuclear power units at Plant Vogtle and by stopping the practice of charging a reconnection fee, after people’s power gets shut off.

The hearings on Georgia Power’s long-range energy plan begin in a couple weeks. Later this year the commissioners will take on rates.

Molly Samuel/WABE

Molly Samuel is the environment reporter at WABE, the NPR station in Atlanta.