Georgia Continues To Move Away From Coal

This week’s Courier Herald column:

With little fanfare, Georgia’s Public Service Commission voted to allow Georgia Power to close several plants last week.  Four coal-burning units at Plant Hammond near Rome Georgia will be permanently retired, along with a coal-burning unit at Plant McIntosh in Rincon. 

The order also allows Georgia Power to retire several small obsolete hydroelectric power plants, including Langdale and Riverview on the Chattahoochee River north of Columbus, and their smallest unit, Plant Estatoah in Rabun County. The dams associated with the plants along the Chattachocchee will be removed.  According to the company’s website, this “will benefit aquatic species by enhancing the area’s riverine shoal habitat” and “will provide a scenic and unobstructed stretch of river for local communities and visitors, including enhanced river connectivity for natural recreational paddling experiences.”

Make no mistake, however, the environmental news of this action is the closure of additional coal-fired electric generating units.  Less than a decade ago, 70% of Georgia Power’s capacity was produced by coal.  Two years ago, the number had moved below 50%.  With an increased focus on renewable energy and the pending completion of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle, the trend line for coal will continue to be downward.

The vote was part of the PSC’s adoption of Georgia Power’s 2019 “Integrated Resources Plan”, which is the three-year plan to meet Georgia’s near-term energy needs.  Included in the plan passed unanimously by the PSC is the addition of 2,210 megawatts of renewable energy. 

To put that in perspective, Georgia had less than 300 megawatts of renewable energy capacity prior to 2013, when 525 megawatts of solar capacity were added.  1600 megawatts of solar were added to the 2016 Integrated Resource Plan, which should be online by the end of this year.

The 2019 plan will roughly double the amount of renewable energy produced for Georgia’s power grid over the next three years.  The additions will come primarily from additional solar power capacity, but some will also come from biomass.  Georgia Power will also develop a pilot program using lithium ion batteries for a grid-connected charging system for electric cars.

PSC Chairman Bubba McDonald issued a statement on the plan, saying in part “Solar, combined with nuclear power when Vogtle 3 and 4 go online, will give Georgians clean, reliable energy for years to come.”  Note the omission of the word “coal” from his vision of power generation in the state.

Coal, however, is cheap. At least, it is before negative externalities such as the cost of pollution are factored in.  Nuclear has tremendous up-front capital costs and solar power currently lacks the ability to provide round-the-clock baseline power and its variable cost is a bit higher than other conventional fuels.  Natural gas, which now powers some of Georgia Power’s former coal-fired units, is currently cheap, but has a history of erratic price swings.

By deemphasizing coal, Georgia Power continues to diversify the basket of sources from which we draw electricity.  While keeping Georgia from reliance on any one solution, the reduction of one of the cheapest will have a cost that will eventually be passed on to consumers. 

At the end of June, Georgia Power filed for a rate increase to be phased in over the next three years, their first such request in six years. The cost of environmental compliance – pegged at $2 Billion since 2013 – was specifically outlined in the company’s announcement.  The costs and additional need to upgrade $5 Billion worth of transmission and distribution equipment, as well as $450 Million in unrecovered costs associated with storm damages over the past few years make up the bulk of the justification for their request.

The company notes when adjusted for inflation, however, that customers will still pay less than they were for the same amount of electricity in 1990.  That was back when most of that electricity was coal-generated.  That’s something the company hopes will help rate payers and the PSC breathe a bit easier.

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