This week’s Courier Herald column:
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column lamenting the state of our politics, and noted that the money pouring into Georgia’s top of the ticket races had drowned out other important contests. I highlighted the races for Georgia’s Public Service Commission as one that has all but disappeared in media coverage, despite their direct control over Georgian’s utility costs.
Two of Georgia’s five incumbent PSC commissioners are on the ballot. Bubba McDonald, a Clarksville Republican, faces Democrat Daniel Blackman and Libertarian Nathan Wilson. Jason Shaw, a Lakeland Georgia Republican, faces Democrat Robert Bryant and Libertarian Elizabeth Melton.
That’s probably most voters in this race will know, and they’ll vote along the party line of their choice. There’s a bit more to consider here, in both the role the commissioners play in Georgia households’ budgets, economic competitiveness, and their impact on the environment.
The Public Service Commission was ahead of the curve in recognizing changing attitudes toward power generation and the environment. McDonald, specifically, was perhaps Georgia’s first GOP statewide elected official to champion solar power as part of the state’s generation mix.
The PSC’s website credits him with the move seven years ago to add the first 525 megawatts of solar power generation capacity to utilities under their jurisdiction. We’ll have almost ten times that capacity once approved projects come online in 2022.
The move toward solar has been at the expense of coal. When GOP partisans were still trumpeting “clean coal” as a bumper sticker talking point, PSC members began openly saying early in the Obama years that given the outlook going forward, they would have difficulty in voting for another coal burning electric plant. Instead, Georgia has seen some coal plants close, plans scrapped for additional coal burning capacity, and former coal powered plants converted to cleaner burning natural gas.
Solar, however, does not provide full time reliable baseline power. While companies like Tesla are making advances in battery power storage for homes and businesses, we’re still nowhere near the technology nor cost point for a full solar powered renewable electric grid. This is where having commissioners looking to the future but grounded in economic reality becomes our PSC’s strong suit.
California routinely experiences rolling brownouts when their grid cannot meet demand. While this is often blamed on the state’s recent spate of wildfires, there are also documented cases when the grid had difficulty adjusting to the spikes in renewable energy production with traditional baseline power. Their mandates have outrun current technological ability, and Californians are often left in the dark as a result.
California also solves their environmental issues by exporting them. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, almost one third of the electricity used in California was generated outside of the state.
Georgia, instead, is investing for the state’s growth today, as well as the likely increased demand for power as we move from gasoline to electric powered cars. While the decision to build two new nuclear powered plants was largely made by the state legislature in 2009, the decision to build the plant relied heavily on the financing guarantees by Westinghouse and their parent company, Toshiba.
Westinghouse ultimately declared bankruptcy and the PSC was forced with the decision of abandoning the plant, with the costs going back to ratepayers under Georgia law, or letting the utilities that owned Vogtle continue construction. South Carolina regulators faced a similar decision with two reactors also under construction there.
In Georgia, construction was resumed with Southern Company assuming responsibilities of the general contractor under an agreement that reduced the costs that could be charged to rate payers. The result is that Georgia will soon add significant carbon-free power generation for the next half century. Rate payers in SC, meanwhile, are paying for a very expensive hole in the ground.
Georgia’s residents and businesses have been able to count on power being available as needed with stable rates for decades. The power that will be generated going forward will be more responsible toward the environment, with the lowest carbon emissions per megawatt generated than ever before.
When you consider the candidates that want to change this trajectory, you should look closely at the state sending the most money to flip Georgia. While California has much to envy, expensive power with regular brownouts isn’t a switch we want to flip.