Plan and Prepare Now For Power Tomorrow

This week’s Courier Herald column:

It’s cold in Georgia this week, but the worst of the country’s weather took aim at Texas. The bitter cold combined with icing conditions have left much of the state without power.  It’s not for the reasons Georgians associate with ice storms – when we experience downed trees on power lines – but that the cold and ice has hampered electricity generation at the source. 

Wind turbines are frozen.  Natural gas pipelines are freezing.  About 4 million Texans are without power, with similar problems reported in other parts of the country where solar panels are covered in snow.

Naturally, some are using social media for the opportunity to point and laugh given that the main criticism of current solar and wind renewable energy is that it can’t provide reliable baseline power.  Scolding “I told you so’s” don’t help advance meeting Georgia’s power needs any more than solutions that use platitudes to avoid hard questions about cost or dependability.

Policy shouldn’t be made in the middle of a crisis, but appropriate questions can be raised by the temporary failure of Texas’s power grid in the most extreme and unique of situations.  An example was the surprise snow storm that hit the northern half of the state seven years ago.  The mass exodus of commuters from downtown Atlanta created a traffic jam that left some trapped in their cars overnight and placed Georgia’s infrastructure as a national news topic.

There were many who used the occasion to point and laugh about how stupid everyone was and that “someone should have done something”. Others, specifically Rebecca Burns – then of Atlanta Magazine and now the Publisher for UGA’s Red & Black newspaper were more helpful and specific. 

She penned an Op-Ed suggested that a complete regional transit system would have avoided much of that day’s jam.  I, having just started an initiative aimed at finding solutions to fix Georgia’s chronically underfunded transportation network, found myself on the phone with her the following morning as her piece went national. 

The two of us were coming at the same problem from different backgrounds and with different solutions, but we agreed that we faced a major problem.  The snowstorm was an opportunity. It helped created awareness that no policy oriented group or single opinion piece ever could.

It took two more years before a major funding bill passed the Georgia General Assembly.  It took two more before a serious model for regional transit could be agreed upon.  While more can be done, we’ve added $1 Billion per year for the last five years to address mobility issues.  The day of that snowstorm, Georgia ranked last in state per capita transportation spending. We’re now closer to the national average.

Solutions would have been easier had we not waited until we had spent a decade of chronic underinvestment in maintaining existing roads while the state grew our population at the 4th fastest rate in the country.  Which brings us back to our power grid.

General Motors has announced that it will phase out internal combustion engines in favor of electric vehicles by 2035.  That’s just 14 years from now, and much of the rest of the industry is following suit. 

How are we going to power these cars?  Do we have the capacity from current sources?

Georgia continues to grow at almost 1 million new residents per decade.  So we’re going to have more people, using more electricity per household.  Are we ready?

Georgia has been attracting manufactures over the last decade with the specific promise of cheap, reliable electricity.  Will we be able to keep those promises to attract jobs to this state?

Wind is generally not feasible here, so there’s no reason to get bogged down in debates over turbines.  Likewise, The all-Republican Georgia Public Service Commission decided a decade ago that coal is electricity’s past.  The only question there is how long it takes to phase out Georgia’s remaining coal plants.

Georgia will be getting two new nuclear reactors soon joining 3 currently in operation. While their upfront costs are high, they are the source of carbon-free baseline power that works 24 hours a day – even when the sun isn’t shining and when the wind isn’t blowing. 

A growing source in Georgia is solar – which is quite useful for incremental power but peak solar generation doesn’t match peak usage times. Current technology doesn’t allow for power to be stored in large scale application. 

We’ve become reliant on natural gas as the replacement for coal in most applications.  It’s cleaner than coal and relatively cheap…for now.  New federal restrictions on oil drilling will likely have a spillover effect of driving up prices on natural gas.

These are questions we need to ask today in order to ensure we have safe, clean, reliable, and affordable power both today and tomorrow.  We don’t need to wait until the lights go out to make sure we have good answers.


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