EV and solar bills expected during legislative session

A new push to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from mining is also planned

With new electric-vehicle plants set to bring thousands of jobs to the state and a landmark federal climate law supercharging investment in renewable technologies, this much is clear: A clean energy transition is underway, and Georgia is among the states leading the pack.

As state lawmakers reconvene under the Gold Dome next week, their decisions will determine what that future looks like.

Legislators are likely to wrestle with building a charging network to support the surge of EVs expected on Georgia roads. Rooftop solar billing is also expected to be considered, along with a new push to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from a controversial mine planned on its doorstep.

As the legislative session approaches, here are the climate and environmental issues to watch in 2023.

EVs charge up legislative priority list

A state legislative committee spent months last year studying how the transition to EVs will affect Georgia. Now, lawmakers could turn some of their proposals into legislation this session.

Among the committee’s recommendations was to allow convenience stores to sell electricity by the kilowatt-hour, instead of by the hour or minute, as most businesses are currently required. The move would also allow the state to tax the electricity — a potential source of revenue to replace motor fuel taxes that pay for road construction and maintenance. Motor fuel tax revenue is expected to decline as electric vehicles become more common.

The committee also recommended the state explore charging motorists by the mile to replace lost motor fuel taxes. The Georgia Department of Transportation plans to launch a voluntary mileage-fee pilot program in 2023 and will report its findings to lawmakers by the end of the year. It’s unlikely the Legislature will take such action until GDOT completes its report.

The committee couldn’t agree on whether to restrict utilities’ from selling electricity directly to motorists. Still, it’s possible lawmakers will move to address the issue.

Sunnier days ahead for rooftop solar?

After state utility regulators at the Georgia Public Service Commission declined to expand Georgia Power’s popular rooftop solar “net metering” pilot program in December, the solar industry now has its eyes on legislative fixes.

Solar is seen as a key path to reduce climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions in Georgia.

On sunny days, customers with rooftop solar often do not use all the electricity their panels generate and send excess back to the grid. Net metering enrollees are compensated at a higher rate for their extra electrons than nonparticipants, allowing them to dramatically reduce their power bills and their climate footprint.

Georgia Power has opposed offering net metering to more customers, saying participants enjoy the reliability of the company’s grid without paying enough to maintain it. Solar advocates, meanwhile, say net metering offers a critical financial incentive to customers that has proved to increase rooftop solar adoption.

Several bills proposed in 2022 dealt with rooftop solar and net metering, but none made it across the finish line. But in the wake of the PSC’s recent decision, the solar industry is planning a new effort in the upcoming session.

“The industry must now look to the Legislature to help clean up the mess left behind by the commission,” said Don Moreland, executive director of the Georgia Solar Energy Association.

A push to protect the Okefenokee for good

With state environmental regulators still reviewing a proposal to extract titanium at the edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a bill that would prohibit the issuance of new mining permits in an area near the swamp is expected to be proposed again this session.

For years, Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals LLC has sought permits to mine less than three miles from the Okefenokee on Trail Ridge, an ancient sand dune complex that forms the eastern boundary of the swamp. Twin Pines says the mine won’t harm the swamp and will bring good-paying jobs to nearby communities.

Scientists for the federal government and the University of Georgia disagree, warning that mining on Trail Ridge could permanently damage the fragile ecosystem. Last month, The Associated Press reported that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland wrote a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp calling on the state to stop the project.

The Okefenokee Protection Act was introduced in 2022 by state Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, but the bill fizzled. This session, Taylor is planning to introduce a new version.

“With the leading scientists saying that mining will irreparably harm the swamp, prohibiting mining on its doorstep is the only way to permanently secure the Okefenokee’s future,” Taylor said in a statement.

Josh Marks, an environmental attorney who 25 years ago helped halt a mine planned near the Okefenokee by the chemical giant DuPont, called on legislators to protect the swamp once and for all.

“Having watched DuPont Chemical try to strip mine next to the swamp back in the ‘90s, and now seeing Twin Pines Minerals’ attempt to replicate that dangerous plan today, the Okefenokee will continue to be at risk unless decisive action is taken,” said Marks, who is working pro bono against the project.