Opinion: Why a looming coal ash problem could boost solar power in Georgia

An aerial view of a solar panel array in Terrell County, Ga., taken in February. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Everyone wants a greener world — or at least says so. The path that each of us would take to get there is another matter.

Environmentalism on the political right is wholly different from environmentalism as conceived by the left. Rachel Carson drives one movement. Adam Smith powers the other.

We have just finished Clean Energy Week. No doubt, given the pandemic, you downgraded your own celebration— perhaps to a wind-powered pinwheel and a few hotdogs on a solar-powered oven.

Conservatives for Clean Energy Georgia, a newish group dedicated to green evangelism on the right, marked the occasion with a series of quick videos featuring some of the Republicans behind this state’s push for solar power.

There wasn’t a single mention of global warming or its more polite cousin, climate change. No fingers pointed at wildfires exploding in the West or oceanic disturbances so numerous that they have exhausted our alphabet and forced us to learn Greek.

Jobs and the pocketbook were the only languages spoken here.

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a 22-year veteran of the state Public Service Commission, described how he had kept his passion for solar energy closeted from his conservative friends until 2013, when he strong-armed Georgia Power to include a dose of the sun in its energy portfolio.

“Market-driven, no upward pressure on the ratepayer, and no state subsidies at all,” McDonald said.

But it was his PSC colleague Tim Echols, who has been fascinated with alternative energy since joining the board in 2010, who made the news. A hidden cost of coal-fired power plants, which manifested itself on the bills of Georgia Power ratepayer early this year, is likely to spur the use of more solar in Georgia, Echols said.

Think coal ash. The residue can contain arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals toxic to humans. Plus trace amounts of hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. Millions of tons of the stuff are stored across the state — in 29 ash ponds and 12 landfills owned by Georgia Power.

In March, the utility told the PSC that it would cost $7.3 billion — more than the utility’s initial estimated cost of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle — to clean up the coal ash mess. And like the Plant Vogtle construction, the company made clear that the cost figure was subject to increase.

The clean-up project is to take 50 years. Most of the money will be spent in the next 15, and ratepayers will be asked a shoulder a major portion.

“If we had known 60 years ago how much coal ash clean-up was going to cost our ratepayers, we might have moved quicker in other forms of energy,” Echols said in that video. “With solar, though, we’re getting clean energy with no fuel costs.”

Batteries capable of extending power delivery time beyond sundown are the key, he said. “When we add batteries to those solar arrays, I think we’re going to see things change. We’re going to be able to close additional coal plants in the future.”

Echols said more in another interview, published last week in a solar industry newsletter. “With coal ash disposal fees rising, solar-plus-storage may take on a special value because of lower fuel and end-of-life costs,” he said.

I called up Echols and asked for a translation. He mentioned the rate increase for Georgia Power customers that the PSC approved in December.

“We’re spending a good part of the rate hike on clean-up, and we’re not getting anything for that. We’re not getting a single kilowatt of energy out of that,” he said. "That’s unfortunate. There was no way to foresee it. And there certainly no way a Public Service Commission 50 years ago could have known what would have happened.

“Now that we know, it will put more pressure on these coal plants. Because we do know that the end of life will bring additional costs,” Echols said.

It was Robert Baker, a former PSC member, who had pointed me to Georgia Power’s initial cost estimates for coal ash clean-up. “You have a huge new expenditure that’s going to be impacting dozens of local Georgia communities,” said Baker, now an energy consultant.

Georgia Power will report to the PSC on its progress twice a year. The problem, Baker said, is that environmental groups — call them stakeholders if you must — will have no opportunity to cross-examine utility officials. As they have been able to do with cost overruns at Plant Vogtle.

Civil liability may be one reason for the closed process.

In July, 45 current and former residents of Juliette and Forsyth, Ga., both communities south of Atlanta, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that a 776-acre, unlined pond adjacent to Georgia Power-owned Plant Scherer — containing 15.7 million tons of coal ash — had leaked toxic substances into their well water.

“The cancer rate in Monroe County (home to most of Juliette and Forsyth, Georgia) is more than double the state and national averages,” the lawsuit states.

Georgia Power officials have said the lawsuit is without merit.

But the Rachel Carson side of environmentalism is on full display in the legal complaint. “According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Plant Scherer is the top single emitter of greenhouse gas emissions among all United States power plants, averaging over 20 million tons per year through at least 2018,” the lawsuit states.

Echols has taken Georgia Power’s side in the dispute. “I’m not convinced that Plant Scherer is the culprit,” he said. “I’m paying attention to it, but it’s not really in our jurisdiction.”

Stacey Evans, the former Democratic candidate for governor who will return to the Legislature in January, is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Plant Scherer lawsuit.

“Mr. Echols doesn’t seem to think the ‘public’ in Public Service Commission would include any consideration for health effects,” she said. Yet she did not quibble with his attitude toward solar power.

But back to the topic of coal ash. Echols pointed out that Georgia Power is selling small amounts of the substance to construction companies as an ingredient in concrete. More uses will be found, he predicted.

“Once we close these plants, 30 or 40 years from now, all of that ash is going to be dug up. It’s going to be rejuvenated, it’s going to be sold, and it will be gone,” Echols said.

In other words, Adam Smith and the free market will save us. Eventually.

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