EPA brings ‘clean power’ plan to Atlanta. Will it hurt Georgia?

Atlanta this week will host one of just four national public hearings on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “clean power” plan to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. The outcome will interest anyone in Georgia who flips a light switch and pays an electric bill.

“Our overarching concern is, is this going to cause electrical rates to rise dramatically?” said Keith Bentley, the state’s leading air quality regulator. “Whatever rule is eventually passed, what does it cost?”

The proposed EPA rules would place new limits on carbon pollution from power plants in Georgia and across the nation, although it particularly resonates in a Peach State that has battled back from asthma-inducing smog and an overreliance on coal-fired energy.

Air quality in metro Atlanta continues to be a significant health threat but notably met an important improvement standard last year. Coal has fallen to less than 40 percent of energy from Georgia Power, the state’s largest supplier, from more than 60 percent just three years ago.

Recent efforts to modernize power plant technology and use different energy sources (such as natural gas and nuclear power) have also paid off: Georgia’s greenhouse gas emissions fell 33 percent between 2005 and 2012.

Still, the new rules would force the state to cut emissions by an additional 44 percent by 2030.

Just how to do that is now at stake, both here and elsewhere. The EPA has already received nearly 300,000 written comments on the proposal, and it is expecting as many as 1,600 people to testify during the hearings, which will also be held through the end of this week in Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington.

In Atlanta, both environmentalists and corporate energy executives are among those who have signed up to testify Tuesday and Wednesday. All available speaking slots are full, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to weigh in about what the proposal means for Georgia.

“I think it’s good as far as it goes,” said John Quarterman, a farmer who has already had to thin the canopy of pine trees surrounding his South Georgia homestead after pine beetles infested some that had been weakened by drought two years ago. He now avidly tracks the ups and downs of climate warming near where he lives in Valdosta, noting weather extremes that also saw historic flooding both last year and in 2009.

“It’s good it’s going to do something about coal emissions,” he said. “Maybe this is just a first step. Good. But we need a second step, too.”

EPA officials said the proposal sprung from a directive last year by President Barack Obama to set new carbon pollution standards for the power industry. The directive came after the agency called greenhouse gas pollution a threat to Americans’ health and welfare because of its effect on climate and the environment.

The power industry disagreed.

Murray Energy, an Ohio-based coal producer, sued the agency last month to stop the proposed rules in a lawsuit joined by nine states: Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. The suit charges that the federal agency overreached with its effort and “harms” states by forcing “burdensome” work to meet unworkable mandates.

In Georgia, industry officials issued dire predictions last week about the impact the new rules could have if implemented: unprecedented increases in customer’s electric bills and power plant shutdowns potentially affecting hundreds of jobs and harming the economy.

“According to the EPA, Georgia is the sixth-most-impacted state, so there will be significant cost impacts from the regulations if they are implemented as currently written,” said Greg Jones with the Tucker-based Oglethorpe Power Corp., which supplies power for 38 electric co-operatives across the state. “Increased costs would have to be passed along to consumers, many of whom are not in a position to pay higher energy bills.”

Power companies also raised the question of fairness. The EPA’s formula in the new rules use a number of variables that differ in each state. The result means different goals for each. Some, for example, must meet a 30 percent reduction by 2030 — much lower than Georgia’s. The rules would also not give the state additional credit for nuclear plants already under construction but not yet operating, something that also sticks in the craw of state officials.

Georgia Power, which has already announced plans to close some coal-powered plants, is throwing more than $5 billion into retrofits for others to better control and reduce emissions. One of them is Plant Scherer, which pumps out more than 21 million tons of carbon dioxide a year from its campus near Macon and is considered by environmentalists to be the dirtiest in the nation.

The environmental construction program comes as the company has also begun increasing, albeit slowly, its renewable energy portfolio including solar power. And both Georgia Power and Oglethorpe Power have their sights set on two new “zero carbon emission” nuclear units under construction at Plant Vogtle near Augusta.

Environmentalists give the state credit for making progress and believe the new rules reinforce the need to continue improving. Of course, what they see as encouragement is seen by industry officials as a bludgeon.

The rules, Georgia Power’s Brian Green said, “assume unprecedented expansion of renewable energy at customers’ expense (and) require reducing the amount of electricity customers use to achieve ambitious energy efficiency standards.”

Yet, “energy efficiency is our most untapped resource,” said Colleen Kiernan, the director of the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter, using an example of a homeowner getting help to replace an old clunker of a refrigerator with a sleek new one that uses less energy to keep food cold. Power companies, she added, “hate to be asked to do more, but every time they do more things get better.”

The back-and-forth leaves the state’s Bentley stuck in the middle.

As air protection branch chief at the state’s Environmental Protection Division, he will lead Georgia’s formal response to the proposal due by Oct. 16. His staff, he said, gains a little more understanding about the effect of the rules every day but is still gathering information.

It is possible, he said, some of the changes could require help from the Georgia Legislature. He must also navigate the state’s complex oversight authority. The Georgia Public Service Commission, for example, regulates Georgia Power but not the energy co-operatives affiliated with Oglethorpe Power. The independent Georgia Environmental Finance Authority has administered energy-efficiency programs in the past, but should it expand such programs in the future?

“It’s easy for people to throw things out there, but making those things happen and understanding how it impacts the energy infrastructure is complicated,” said Bentley, who is most worried the state will be stuck with an unchanging mandate for the next 15 years. “There has to be some way to adjust this over time.’

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