What to expect in the hearings that will shape Georgia’s energy future

What to expect in the hearings that will shape Georgia’s energy future

By Drew Kann, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution

State utility regulators today will begin vetting Georgia Power’s plans for generating and delivering electricity over the next two decades, kicking off a series of hearings that could have a major influence on how much the company’s 2.7 million customers pay.

By the end of the months of proceedings, the course agreed upon also could have a big impact on the state’s contribution to limiting climate change.

In January, Georgia Power released its new integrated resource plan (IRP). But, right now, the plan the company laid out is just a proposal. To finalize it, it must gain approval from a majority of the five-member Georgia Public Service Commission, led by Chairman Tricia Pridemore.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why is this happening now?

Georgia Power is required by law to file a new IRP with state regulators every three years. Its last plan was approved in 2019.

What’s in this new 20-year plan?

At more than 200 pages, the IRP is not exactly a page-turner.

But the proposal submitted signals that Georgia Power wants to accelerate its shift away from coal-fired power plants — a move that many other utilities across the country are making. Citing a continued decline in the economic viability of coal, the company wants to shutter all of its coal units, except at Plant Bowen in Bartow County, by 2028. The two final units at Plant Bowen will close no later than 2035, the company’s plan says.

As Georgia’s economy rebounds from the pandemic, Georgia Power expects energy sales will increase by almost 1% every year for the next two decades.

To meet that demand — and replace the 3,500 megawatts of capacity it will lose from closing its coal plants — the company is planning big investments in solar. But it also wants to lean heavily on natural gas, another fossil fuel that contributes to global warming.

Will this plan impact the rates Georgia Power customers pay?

Yes, but not directly.

Think of Georgia Power’s IRP as an architect’s blueprint for building a home, said Liz Coyle, the executive director of Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy nonprofit. The IRP process will decide which kinds of construction materials are used to build that home, which will affect the cost.

But how much of that cost is passed on to Georgia Power customers won’t be decided until later this year. That’s when the company has to make another pitch to the commission, in a separate proceeding called the rate case.

The rate case “determines how much customers are going to pay and how much the commission is going to allow the company to profit,” Coyle said.

So… Why else should I care about this?

If you are concerned about climate change, the IRP is a big deal.

Scientists have warned for decades that heat-trapping gases from human activity are warming the planet rapidly and worsening a host of natural disasters. In Georgia, the electricity sector is the second largest source of those emissions, according to Blair Beasley, the director of climate strategies at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation.

Which sources are used to generate power will affect whether Georgia reduces its emissions — and how fast.

The company’s carbon emissions peaked in 2007, according to Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft, and it had already reduced its carbon emissions by more than 60% by 2020.

But advocates say that accelerating the shift toward zero carbon energy will make it easier to cut emissions from other sectors too.

“Producing clean, reliable electricity provides a pathway for other parts of our economy to decarbonize —think electric cars, electric water heaters and electric cooktops,” Beasley said. “The electricity sector is a real linchpin to our clean energy future.”

What issues or sticking points could arise?

Residential solar programs are expected to be a hot topic.

A popular program that allowed property owners with rooftop solar to dramatically lower their energy bills filled up last summer. That’s because the program was capped at 5,000 participants when the Public Service Commission created it in 2019.

Solar installers, clean energy advocates and others want to see that program expanded. But a Georgia Power spokesperson said the company is opposed to that idea, citing “cost shifting to non-participants” as a concern.

The incentives that Georgia Power offers to help customers improve the efficiency of their homes and trim their energy bills also could come up. A 2018 Georgia Tech study found that Atlantans spent 10.2% of their household income on energy bills, fourth-highest in the nation.

“The cleanest, cheapest source of energy is that which is not produced,” Coyle said. “We think the company could be including in their plan a much greater focus on reducing demand and lowering everybody’s cost.”

Who can weigh-in during the hearings?

Georgia Power, the commissioners and their appointed staff will run the show.

But groups with an interest in the IRP can participate as “intervening parties” — if they applied ahead of the hearing. Representatives from those groups can attend hearings, cross-examine witnesses and submit suggestions about what they think Georgia Power’s plans should look like.

The intervenors this year represent a range of interests, from solar installers and clean energy advocates to natural gas suppliers and consumer watchdog groups. And, for the first time ever, local officials from Atlanta, Decatur, Savannah, DeKalb County, Fulton County and Athens-Clarke County have banded together to represent their 2.1 million residents in the hearings.

The general public cannot offer comments in-person during the hearings due to COVID-19 protocols. But the commission is accepting comments online, and it held a town hall on March 24 that was open to the public, PSC spokesperson Tom Krause said.

When could the plan be finalized?

Right now, the commission is tentatively scheduled to vote on the plan on July 19. Stay tuned.

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