Georgia Power to wean off coal, add gas and solar under approved plan

Amid worsening climate change impacts, some environmental groups raised concerns about the company’s new investment in natural gas.
Picture shows Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville on Thursday, September 17, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Picture shows Georgia Power's Plant Bowen in Cartersville on Thursday, September 17, 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

State regulators voted Thursday to approve Georgia Power’s long-term plan for generating and distributing electricity, allowing the company to continue its phase out of its remaining coal-fired power plants and replace them with natural gas and solar energy.

But the transition away from coal will not happen quite as fast as Georgia Power had proposed and some environmental groups would have liked. And at a time when the impacts of climate change are growing increasingly dire — largely due to the burning of fossil fuels — the commission’s move to lock in dependence on natural gas for years to come drew criticism from climate advocates.

Every three years, Georgia Power is required to submit its roadmap — known as an integrated resource plan (IRP) — for supplying energy over the next two decades for the Public Service Commission’s approval.

After voting on several amendments, the final plan was approved unanimously by the PSC’s five members. The vote was the culmination of dozens of hours of hearings, in which environmentalists, consumer advocates and the commissioners themselves grilled Georgia Power witnesses with questions about why the company’s plan made sense for its 2.7 million customers.

Chris Womack — Georgia Power’s chairman, president and CEO — said in a news release that the approved plan will allow the company to dependably serve its customers.

“As Georgia continues to grow and the energy landscape continues to evolve, it’s incredibly important that we keep making the smart investments needed for our customers to have clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy for decades to come,” Womack said. “The approval of our latest Integrated Resource Plan helps us do just that.”

In the end, the final plan was largely similar to what was outlined in an agreement between the PSC’s public interest advocacy staff and Georgia Power filed last month with the commission.

The commission’s vote clears the way for Georgia Power to shutter nearly all of its remaining coal power plants by 2028, with the exception of the units at Plant Bowen near Cartersville. In its initial plan, Georgia Power had asked to close down Bowen’s Units 1 and 2 by the end of 2027. However, the commissioners punted on the issue on Thursday, electing to leave a final decision on the fate of the units until the 2025 IRP. The other two units at Plant Bowen are slated to shut down no later than December 31, 2035.

To replace that lost coal-fired electricity, Georgia Power received the greenlight to purchase 2,000 megawatts of additional natural gas capacity and add 2,300 megawatts of new solar resources to its energy mix over the next three years.

While environmental groups praised some aspects of the approved plan, like an amendment proposed by Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald to require Georgia Power to increase its energy efficiency savings targets by 15%, many called other aspects of the plan disappointing.

Among the biggest points of concern from climate advocates is the company’s new investment in natural gas. While burning natural gas produces less heat-trapping carbon dioxide than coal combustion, it is still mostly comprised of methane, a potent greenhouse gas capable of trapping 25 times more heat over its lifespan than carbon dioxide.

With the U.S. and Europe facing dangerous heat waves linked to greenhouse gases, environmental groups said new fossil fuel investment will only worsen the effects of climate change.

“While Georgia Power and the PSC have taken some positive steps, the IRP falls far short of what is needed to address our climate crisis,” Scott Presson, the lead volunteer for the Sierra Club Georgia Chapter’s Clean Energy Committee, said in a statement.

Commissioners authorized the procurement of a new 500 megawatt battery storage system to store solar energy when the sun is not shining. But a motion to expand a popular rooftop solar program failed to pass, angering some advocates.

The PSC created a pilot program in 2019 to allow property owners with rooftop solar to dramatically lower their energy bills, but the pilot was limited to 5,000 participants and has been maxed out since last summer.

Commissioner Tim Echols’ proposal to open the program up to another 75,000 participants failed, with Commissioners Tricia Pridemore, Jason Shaw and Fitz Johnson all opposed. The commission approved a separate motion to study the impacts of residential rooftop solar and revisit expansion in future hearings.

“I think customers are going to need more options to control these ever-rising bills. There are a lot of increases to come,” said Jill Kysor, a solar advocate and senior attorney at the environmental legal advocacy nonprofit the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Georgia Power will return to the PSC again in September for approval of proposed electricity rate plans. Its initial proposal called for hikes of nearly 12% over the next three years, starting in January.

The proposed roughly $1 billion rate increase would be front loaded, with the largest jump set to take effect in 2023. If approved by the PSC, the average household could see their bill climb by $14.32 each month next year, the company said, for a total average annual increase of nearly $172.

Monthly rates would rise in 2024 by an additional $1.35 per month and by another $0.62 per month in 2025.

What Georgia Power’s energy future looks like

  • Less coal: Georgia Power will shutter all of its remaining coal-fired plants by 2028, with the exception of four units at Plant Bowen.
  • More natural gas and solar: The company will purchase 2,000 megawatts of additional natural gas capacity and add 2,300 megawatts of new solar resources in the coming years.
  • No rooftop solar program expansion, for now: A motion to expand a popular program allowing customers with solar panels to cut their energy bills failed to pass.