How Georgians might reach new U.S. target for 50% carbon cut

Traffic lightened some in metro Atlanta during the pandemic, but more Georgians may eventually restart their office commutes. That is just one of the pressures on President Joe Biden's announced target for the nation to cut overall carbon emissions about 50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Traffic lightened some in metro Atlanta during the pandemic, but more Georgians may eventually restart their office commutes. That is just one of the pressures on President Joe Biden's announced target for the nation to cut overall carbon emissions about 50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Credit: hshin@ajc.com

Georgia is ahead of most states in cutting carbon emissions blamed for climate change, putting it closer to a new White House target of a 50% reduction in the U.S. by 2030 from 2005 levels.

The not-so-good news: Georgia still has a long way to go and only nine years to get there if the cuts become mandatory for the nation.

Making the cuts “is difficult but doable,” said Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech professor of sustainable systems who helped analyze options in Georgia to possibly reach the target. “It’s an all-hands-on-board kind of approach we are taking.”

The options include changes by not only big companies, developers and power producers but also individual metro Atlantans, many of whom have already partially reduced their carbon footprint, perhaps without fully realizing it. Among the steps that have helped already: more efficient lighting and appliances in homes and adoption of hybrid and electric vehicles as well as more fuel-efficient trucks and cars.

But some of the sharpest reductions over the last decade have been made by electric utilities such as Georgia Power. U.S. power producers have switched much of their generation from coal to natural gas, a less-expensive fossil fuel with lower carbon emissions. Another carbon-free power source on the rise: solar power, with big gains in technology and far lower prices.

Georgia also would get more carbon-free energy once a massive but long-delayed and over-budget nuclear expansion of Plant Vogtle is completed. The first of two new reactors is currently slated to become operational near the end of the year.

Federal figures show that only five states have made larger percentage cuts than Georgia in carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, which includes generating electricity, driving cars and flying planes, using gas furnaces in homes, cooking with gas and other activities. The state emitted 52 million fewer metric tons of carbon in 2018 than it did in 2005, a 28% reduction.

But there’s a lot more carbon to squeeze out, including in the electricity system, Georgia’s second-largest source of carbon belching, behind only transportation, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The White House is contemplating a range of steps for how to reach its carbon goals. They are expected to include increased government funding, shifting policy and tighter standards and mandates. Proposals range from encouraging greater use of electric vehicles, developing more charging stations and expanding research in capturing carbon. It’s not clear which, if any, cuts might be assigned on a state-by-state basis.

Georgia Power’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Company, has set a goal to reach net zero emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases by 2050. The Biden administration has the same goal for the nation as a whole, but is pushing electricity providers to be 100% carbon pollution free by 2035.

“This is an important and awfully complex and difficult undertaking,” Southern CEO Tom Fanning told analysts in late April. “And we are ready to support them however we can.”

Fanning said he thinks the Biden administration’s targets for utilities are reachable but “there needs to be a whole different level of public-private cooperation and collaboration, carrots and sticks, in order to get this done.”

Southern wants government policies that promote investments in research, development and deployment of new energy technologies, long-lasting batteries, new nuclear power options, energy efficiency and more favorable taxes.

About half the states already have economy-wide targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Georgia isn’t one of them.

More than three fourths of registered Georgia voters surveyed earlier this year by the University of Georgia said they believe global warming is occurring and most said they are willing to pay more to combat it. The vast majority of people surveyed said they believe human activity is a culprit in global warming, in part or in whole.

A spokesman for the state Environmental Protection Division declined to comment on how difficult it would be to reach the White House’s new targets.

Gov. Brian Kemp recently cited the combination of long-term U.S. clean energy strategy and industrial growth in Georgia.

”It’s exactly what we’re supposed to be doing in this country and in the state of Georgia. So we’re fighting hard for that,” the governor said at a battery plant ceremony last month. “This is not the end. It’s really just the beginning.”

In the past, Southern, the parent of Georgia’s largest power provider, has resisted federal mandates for change by power companies.

In 2015, Georgia Power joined a push to shelve the EPA’s Clean Power Plan under the Obama Administration, which called for carbon cuts among utilities in each state, including a possible 44% reduction in Georgia by 2030. Georgia Power claimed the government’s targets could reduce system reliability and would increase the cost of electricity.

The proposed cut, which was dropped during the Trump administration, was lower than what the Biden administration is now asking for and what Southern has said it has reached on its own, with cuts now hovering around 50% for the company as a whole.

Daniel Blackman, who chairs the Sierra Club’s Georgia chapter, said cleaner technology will boost the state’s economy, in addition to cutting down on pollution, battling climate change and reducing health problems like asthma. He cited a $2.6-billion electric vehicle battery plant under construction in Jackson County, with plans for at least 2,600 jobs, and a solar panel plant in Dalton with hundreds of workers.

He said state elected officials need to reenact a canceled tax credit for electric vehicle purchases, boost construction of charging stations and push Georgia Power to close plants sooner. He pointed out that years ago elected members of the Georgia Public Service Commission drove the monopoly utility to launch more solar power, despite the company’s resistance.

Brown, the Georgia Tech professor, said the governor should immediately pull together a commission to look at the options for how to best cut carbon in Georgia.

She said options include expanding solar power, eliminating caps on how many people can receive full credit for surplus solar power they generate and sell to Georgia Power, and reducing barriers that keep manufacturers from producing electricity using waste heat.

Individuals can make shifts at home, she said, including composting, having a more plant-rich diet, spending less time in gas-powered cars, shifting home energy use to when demand is lower and cleaner generation technology is in use, and installing solar panels.

The Atlanta Regional Commission, which makes recommendations on whether local governments should approve big development projects, doesn’t yet specifically factor in carbon emissions. But transportation manager John Orr said the planning body encourages steps that could help reduce carbon.

Those include having express lanes for buses, developing a regional trails network for walking and biking, fixing traffic bottlenecks, funding assistance for more walkable developments and promoting ride sharing and working from home.

A new White House proposal for massive infrastructure spending could help speed up work that would help curb carbon, Orr said.

Global warming survey

More than three fourths of registered Georgia voters surveyed earlier this year by the University of Georgia said they believe global warming is occurring and most said they are willing to pay more to combat it. The vast majority of people surveyed said they believe human activity is a culprit in global warming, in part or in whole.

In Other News