State regulators have signed off on a roadmap that bolsters Georgia Power’s shift away from fossil fuels, but critics argue it doesn’t go nearly far enough to attack a growing climate crisis.
The Georgia Public Service Commission Thursday voted unanimously to approve the utility’s updated long-term plan that outlines how the company will spend billions of dollars to provide power to its 2.7 million customers as it transitions from polluting coal-fired plants to an emphasis on solar and other cleaner electricity.
Georgia Power aims to shut down nearly all of its coal-fired power plants by 2028, except for Plant Bowen, which is set to be mothballed by 2035. The company plans to close 29 coal ash ponds in its push to produce more economically feasible electricity and cut greenhouse gas emissions to close to zero by 2050.
The plan also calls for Georgia Power to solicit interest from companies for a biomass project.
A last-minute amendment Thursday prompted commissioners to wait until the next updated long-term plan in 2025 before deciding when to close four coal-burning units at Plant Bowen.
Georgia Power’s renewable energy capacity is expected to grow by 2,300 megawatts over the next few years. However, a popular incentive-based solar rooftop program will remain capped.
Critics cry for more urgent moves
Environment and energy advocates expressed disappointment Thursday that commissioners didn’t press Georgia Power to act more urgently to mitigate climate change. The commission declined to require expanded net metering of solar power use and moving hazardous coal ash from 10 unlined pits.
The new plan includes some positive steps by Georgia Power and state regulators in switching to renewable energy, said Scott Presson, a Sierra Club volunteer. Still, he said, the updated plan fails to meet industry expectations.
“The PSC also proved that they will only require Georgia Power to do the bare minimum to build out our state’s renewable energy infrastructure by approving only what the utility proposed and not a megawatt more,” he said. “The commission also completely ignored the pressing issue of toxic coal ash sitting in groundwater at several of Georgia Power’s coal ash ponds throughout the state, which has been and will continue to cause widespread water contamination.”
Georgia Power is investing $7 billion it says will improve its transmission and distribution system by reducing outages, minimizing repair times, and improving customer service.
Commissioner Fitz Johnson Thursday initiated an agreement to delay closing of coal units at Plant Bowen until 2025.
“As Georgia continues to grow and the energy landscape continues to evolve, it’s incredibly important that we keep making the smart investments needed for our customers to have clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy for decades to come,” said Chris Womack, chairman, president and CEO of Georgia Power.
Before Thursday’s vote, the PSC held more than 30 hours of hearings to complete a stipulated agreement between the state’s largest electricity supplier, the state regulator’s public interest advocacy staff, the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, and a coalition of local governments.
Rate increase hearings set for fall
Beginning in September, the PSC is scheduled to hold hearings on Georgia Power’s rate case, which will determine how much customers pay for electricity and other costs associated with the new three-year plan, including coal ash cleanup.
Under Georgia Power’s proposal, the typical residential customers’ rates would increase by nearly 12% over the next three years, which amounts to another $16.29 per average household bills month for the in 2025.
Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald voted in support of Commissioner Tim Echols’ proposal to expand Georgia Power’s solar net metering program beyond the current 5,000 cap to 75,000 customers.
The appetite for solar remains strong and customers with net metering are paying their fair share by buying a little more than the average residential customers, Echols said.
“Solar customers are effectively storing their electrons on the grid and using those electrons later in the day or the month, just like rollover minutes on the old cell phone plans we had,” he said.
“The power company’s already stood up this department they’ve already staffed up,” he added. “They got the process down now and continuing this will promote economic development and allow more customers to be a part of this clean energy economy.”
Commissioner Tricia Pridemore said that allowing more time to close Plant Bowen ensures Georgia Power is well prepared to handle the transition. Taking more time to analyze solar power expansion will allow the commission to take time to study some problems in the instability, she said.
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