Grant Blankenship, GPB News
Georgia’s Public Service Commission, responsible for how the electricity you use is made and how much you pay for it, is hearing arguments this week from the state’s largest electrical utility, Georgia Power, which says record levels of industrial growth in the state mean the utility needs permission to radically increase the amount of electricity it produces.
Georgia Power has proposed to meet most of the projected need for more power, much of it from the ‘green transportation’ sector, through a mix of burning coal and fossil gas.
In the documents describing its request to amend the plan for generation approved by the PSC just two years ago (its Integrated Resource Plan) Georgia Power cites $24 billion of recent new industrial investment in Georgia as the reason its projected demand for electricity will multiply 17 times by 2030.
Georgia Power cites the growth of internet data centers and server farms for things like streaming TV and social media as a major driver of the projected crunch. A number of server farms do nothing but power cryptocurrency trading.
“And then there’s also a lot of clean energy manufacturers — so, people making batteries for electric vehicles or people making solar panels,” Jennifer Whitfield of the Southern Environmental Law Center said of other industries that are placing new demands on power output.
That includes a plant under construction just outside of Cartersville which claims to be the largest solar panel factory in the western hemisphere, owned by the company Qcells.
In some cases, a single one of these new factories consumes as much power as one of the new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta produces.
Those facts, plus Georgia Power’s proffered plan, set up what, for Whitfield, is an irony.
“These industries are either companies that really care about their clean energy goals or they’re companies that care about their clean energy goals and they’re making clean energy technology, too.” Whitfield said.
“So we need to be meeting their needs with clean energy.”
There is some clean energy in the mix of the utility’s plan, like 1,000 megawatts of new battery storage to be cited by pre-existing solar facilities, plus the possibility, but no guarantee, for up to 4,000 megawatts of new solar generation.
It’s the rest of the plan that’s not enough for the liking of some key critics.
First, the utility plans on buying power from a coal-fired plant owned by sister company Mississippi Power and a gas turbine in Florida, resources which would otherwise be idled.
“They’re picking up the dregs that nobody else wants,” said Bryan Jacob of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Next, there’s about 1,400 megawatts of new fossil gas generation to be cited at Plant Yates in Coweta County.
The big ticket items in the plan, though, are pre-existing capacities at coal-fired Plant Bowen and Plant Scherer and, over the border in Alabama, Plant Gaston. Together the likely postponement of those resources by as much as decade account for about 70% of the shortfall projected by Georgia Power.
All three of those facilities were recently cited as among the most deadly coal-fired plants in the nation due to the number of excess deaths caused by their particulate emissions.
Meanwhile, that power will be in service of clean technology that, in some sense, is only as clean as the power used to build it.
For instance, while Georgia Power representatives said it has the contract to power the Hyundai Motors Metaplant in Bryan County, presumably through that carbon-heavy emergency portfolio, Hyundai has long been on the record as committed to 100% renewable energy at the plant.
“Beginning with the start of mass production, the electricity used to power the Metaplant will come from 100% renewable sources, aligning with Hyundai’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2045,” said Hyundai spokesperson Bianca Johnson back in November.
Katie Southworth of the Clean Energy Buyers Association said many of the 400 or so business giants who are CEBA members like Google, Walmart and Chick-Fil-A have made similar pledges.
She said that’s because fossil fuels are bad for business.
“Businesses are in the business of doing business, right?” Southworth said. “They’re making commitments around clean energy and carbon that they wouldn’t be making if they thought it was going to impact their bottom line. They’re not planning for bankruptcy, right?“
Bryan Jacob of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said there’s at least one alternative he wants in the discussion
“If Georgia Power just made a conscious effort to encourage people to put solar on their roof and batteries behind the meter, it would mean Georgia Power wouldn’t have to be servicing them during these peak challenges,” he said.
So far, Georgia Power has not been enthusiastic about distributed residential solar.
Jennifer Whitfield of the SELC said another fix could be for the utility to talk to industry about when they can and can’t hog energy.
“And say ‘Hey, I need you to slow it down for eight hours so that we don’t have blackouts across the state,’” Whitfield said.
So-called Demand Response programs offer industry a break on their power bill in return. Georgia Power has recently signaled they’re open to more of that.
Katie Southworth of the Clean Energy Buyers Association said if Georgia Power and the Public Service Commission don’t come up with something climate-friendly for the predicted power crunch, they run the risk of steering the business boom out of state.
“I often say if they can’t get what they need in the Southeast, they’re going to go to Oklahoma where there’s a lot of wind energy,” Southworth said. “States compete all the time.”
Georgia Power’s request to ramp up electricity generation will be considered by Georgia’s Public Service Commission until April.
This story comes to the Augusta-Richmond Herald through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.