The political winds are shifting in Georgia and hopefully those winds will soon start generating electricity. On Thursday Georgia Power formalized an agreement with the Public Service Commission to add 1,200 megawatts of renewable power to its energy plan for the state. For those of us who don’t know science, that is enough energy to power 200,000 homes over the next 5 years.
Of the 1,200 megawatts, 1,050 will come from utility scale projects and 150 will be produced by distributed generation projects. Utility scale projects produce 10 or more megawatts of power and use a central location to transfer power to the locations at which it will be used (like a power plant generating electricity for a neighborhood). Distributed generation projects directly generate power at the site where it will be used (like your hippy friend from high school who has solar panels on his roof).
Georgia Power proposed increasing renewable energy when it filed its triennial Integrated Resource Plan to the Public Service Commission last January. The 2015 IRP contained the Renewable Energy Development Initiative which envisioned more solar and wind energy projects. After negotiating with the Public Service Commission—the elected officials charged with regulating utility rates—the 1,200 megawatt agreement was reached. The Public Service Commission will vote on the proposal next month.
If the proposal passes, it will be a big step forward for renewable energy. Conservatives have long been skeptical of phasing out fossil fuels in favor of clean alternatives, especially because renewable energy is a central plank of President Obama’s agenda. Activists were outraged when the solar energy cell manufacturer Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011. The company had received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy and multimillion dollar tax breaks from California. Its failure reinforced the fear that renewable energy is not a reliable alternative to traditional energy sources like coal and petroleum.
There was further outrage in 2015 when President Obama and the EPA issued regulations limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The so-called Clean Power Plan has since been challenged in federal court by a group of states that includes Georgia. It was blocked temporarily by the Supreme Court and is currently awaiting a decision from the DC Court of Appeals. In the 2016 legislative session, State Senator Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) dropped a bill that would enter Georgia into an interstate compact that refuses to comply with the Clean Power Plan. The bill quickly died and no states have joined the compact yet.
In addition to the agreement with the Public Service Commission, Georgia Power is looking at other ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It announced that it will soon retire one coal-burning unit and three oil-fired turbines. However, efforts like these are not expected to bring widespread change to American energy policy. Despite a shifting focus to renewable energy, 67 percent of electricity in the United States still comes from fossil fuels. More ambitious plans and more investment will be needed to wean our country off its addiction to fossil fuels.