Southern Co.’s Georgia Power utility announced a plan yesterday to double its renewable energy footprint by 2035 as it maps out a path to close the rest of its coal fleet in that time.
The moves, which reflect the electric company’s continued transition to cleaner fuel sources, would help Southern achieve a net-zero carbon goal by 2050 for electricity. Other steps at Georgia Power include extending the life of hydropower units and Plant Hatch nuclear reactors, adding 1,000 megawatts of energy storage, and revamping energy efficiency and solar programs.
Georgia Power plans to shutter 12 coal units, totaling about 3,500 megawatts, by 2028. It wants to replace that electricity with a combination of renewables as well as 2,356 MW of natural-gas-fired power that it plans to buy from power plants that are already running. For context, once two additional nuclear reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle start producing electricity, the total 4,536 MW from four units there will power up to 1 million homes.
The company delivered its highly anticipated 20-year-long-term energy plan to state utility regulators yesterday afternoon. The 200-page document outlines the utility’s continued transition into one that is less reliant on baseload fossil fuel generation and more on distributed generation.
“We feel like this process affords us the opportunity to tell the story about how Georgia Power is preparing for this new energy landscape and how we transition the fleet and enhance our grid,” Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack said in an interview with E&E News. “We’re making a transition to a larger renewable fleet with a high focus on protecting the environment and supporting the communities and customers that we serve.”
Georgia Power is the largest electric company in the Peach State as well as the biggest in Southern’s utility system, which stretches across much of the Southeast. That means any shift in its electricity mix will affect carbon emissions in Georgia and within Southern’s power grid.
The steps are in line with a nationwide trend of electric companies replacing coal plants with renewables and natural gas. What’s notable about Georgia Power is it does not plan to build any natural gas plants right now, choosing to buy the electricity from elsewhere.
The decision is an economic one, according to Womack.
“There’s some pricing advantages with the [power-purchase agreements] at this time,” he said, acknowledging the company may decide later to build natural gas plants. “Right now, we see this as the best alternative to replace the energy that was made available through the coal units.”
That alternative is to enter into six long-term purchase power agreements for a total capacity of 2,356 MW with Southern Power, Southern Co.’s wholesale power unit. Like most other electric companies, Georgia Power argues that it needs the additional gas generation to support the amount of renewables it wants to add to the power grid.
Clean energy advocates aren’t buying the argument that the utility needs any more gas-fired generation at all, however.
“We welcome Georgia Power’s proposed coal retirements, but by proposing to replace coal with more than 2,300 MW of new gas capacity, we don’t see how this aligns with Southern Co.’s plans to be net zero by 2050,” said Jill Kysor, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We question the need for new gas capacity and are skeptical of whether cleaner, more affordable alternatives were adequately considered.”
Every 3 years
Georgia Power files its integrated resource plan (IRP) every three years. In 2019, clean energy advocates criticized the company for not taking steps to align with Southern’s net-zero carbon goals.
Indeed, the falling cost of renewables combined with widening options of cleaner technologies have made it more economically feasible for utilities to transition to emission-free sources of electricity. What’s more, the Biden administration wants the U.S. power sector to decarbonize by 2035.
Southern is among the nation’s major electric companies known for exercising its lobbying muscle in Washington and in the states where it operates to craft energy policies that will be favorable to the company and its customers.
Womack said elements of the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure law and the stalled “Build Back Better” plan that include beefing up electrification and enhancing reliability and resiliency would be important to the utility as it moves forward.
Georgia Power will work with the Department of Energy and other federal and state agencies “to see how we can partner to support enhanced reliability and resiliency in the state as well,” he said.
The IRP reflects an expected 0.8 percent annual average growth in summer energy sales and 0.7 percent in winter between now and 2041 as Georgia’s economy continues to expand, adding a wide range of manufacturers, tech companies and other businesses. The electric company has chosen not to adjust its reserve margin — the amount of extra generation it needs to meet peak winter and summer loads.
Components of Georgia Power’s IRP also can be a window into what may happen at sister companies. Mississippi Power is on its way to removing roughly 950 MW of fossil fuels from its generating fleet. And Alabama Power plans to cut roughly 3,000 MW of coal — the details of which are expected later this year.
Coal plant closures from Atlanta-based Southern are expected. The company has said it would close down roughly half of its coal fleet systemwide by the decade’s end (Energywire, Nov. 5, 2021).
That is because all but two of its coal plants don’t comply with federal wastewater regulations for power plant discharges. These can contain high levels of toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic, nitrogen and selenium.
The proposed schedule includes closing units at some of the nation’s largest coal plants: Scherer and Bowen. Georgia Power plans to close two units at Bowen by Dec. 31, 2027, and one unit at Scherer a year later.
Georgia Power owns a small share of Scherer’s first two units, and no decision has been made on their fate. However, the utility states in the IRP that it is making future generation plans based upon their closure by Dec. 31, 2028, as well.
The utility plans to upgrade two other units at Bowen, arguing that they are needed for reliability reasons. The units will be closed by Dec. 31, 2035, if not before.
Georgia Power wants to add 6,000 MW of renewables — likely including solar — by 2035, bringing the total amount of renewables on the grid to 11,000 MW by that time. It also plans to upgrade three of its hydropower plants so they can operate an additional 40 years.
Georgia Power is among the Southeast electric companies that lag in energy efficiency options for low-income customers, among others (Energywire, Aug. 6, 2020).
Residents in the South have the highest energy burden — paying a disproportionate amount of their income on utility bills — because of a combination of older housing stock, extreme heat and humidity, and a lack of updated building codes and energy efficiency measures.
Environmental justice advocates have been watching the company closely after Southern CEO Tom Fanning pledged to do “everything in my ability” to have the Atlanta-based energy giant and all its subsidiaries viewed as role models for the private entities forging change during the company’s annual meeting last year.
Georgia Power has asked to end two of its energy efficiency programs and extend others. It also has proposed a community solar pilot program for low-income residents.
It’s not enough, however, for some critics.
“The future of energy production in Georgia must be clean and carbon free,” said Charline Whyte, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Georgia, in a statement. “Georgia Power’s proposal seems to recognize this reality and is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go big enough.”
Absent in the plan is discussion of the next generation of nuclear reactors, which are being billed as safer and more efficient, and transportation electrification. Executives from Southern and Georgia Power have made it clear that additional nuclear is needed by the next decade to continue on a net-zero carbon path, but Womack said those discussions are just that at the moment.
Georgia Power is building the nation’s lone baseload nuclear power construction project, Plant Vogtle, with a group of public power utilities. It also plans to ask federal regulators to extend the operating license of its Plant Hatch reactors, so they can run for an additional 20 years.
Proposals about transportation electrification and charging networks will appear in a subsequent rate case that will start later this year.
“We are excited and bullish to expand the charging infrastructure and charging network,” Womack said. “That platform will be discussed in the rate case.”