Technology drives future plans at Southern Co.’s biggest utility

By Kristi E. Swartz | 02/02/2016 07:50 AM EST

ATLANTA — Southern Co. once called natural gas a “dominant solution” as its electric companies were transitioning away from coal. Now, nuclear is joining in as a chief option for cleaner electricity, officials say.

ATLANTA — Southern Co. once called natural gas a "dominant solution" as its electric companies were transitioning away from coal.

Now, nuclear is joining in as a chief option for cleaner electricity, officials say.

Southern’s Georgia Power Co. subsidiary said it is keeping nuclear on the menu of options for baseload electricity in the future in its latest long-term energy plan filed late Friday afternoon. While that seemed like a relatively mundane comment for a utility that is building twin reactors, comments from company officials signal a higher priority.


"Nuclear will be a dominant solution for a low-carbon energy future," said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft, in a statement to EnergyWire.

Nuclear will be able to serve as an emissions-free source of baseload power and will diversify Georgia Power’s fuel base beyond natural gas, the company said in its integrated resource plan (IRP). To be clear, it will be years before any new reactors will be built, and it’s unclear what advanced form they could take.

"With the reality of carbon regulation, and the likelihood that new coal generation in Georgia is not a feasible option for the indefinite future, the company must continue to be proactive in its consideration of future nuclear as a viable baseload option," Georgia Power said in the lengthy document.

The company’s comments and discussion in the IRP reinforce Georgia Power and Southern’s stance that the United States will build more nuclear power in some form. Southern recently made two announcements about working on new nuclear technology, one of which includes joining "SMR Start," a consortium of utilities, energy and technology companies working to commercialize small modular reactors.

Separately, Southern’s nuclear unit received a $40 million grant from the Energy Department to develop advanced reactor technologies.

Kraft said it’s too early to predict whether the timeline on that research will align with Georgia Power’s need.

"It is too early to speculate on the type of reactor design the company might use if it pursues more nuclear projects in the future," he said. "At this time, the company remains focused on simply preserving the option of having nuclear available to serve customers in the future if needed."

Utility in transition

What is also notable about Georgia Power’s discussion of nuclear power in the IRP is where that happens. The utility included an extensive "emerging technologies" section, outlining research that Southern is either reviewing or working on.

The list ranges from advanced coal to solar and energy efficiency as well as battery storage and likely is an outline for the utility’s future. It’s unclear as to when any of these will emerge as viable enough to become part of the grid or, perhaps more importantly, when the electric companies are comfortable enough that these innovations can do the job of a traditional power plant.

This section is one part of why Georgia Power’s IRP is a textbook example of a utility in transition. The utility calls for removing 377 megawatts of old coal and oil units from the grid. Separately, it wants to add 525 MW of renewable energy that doesn’t have to be just solar.

As far as building any more power plants or adding any sort of notable generation, that won’t happen until 2024.

And when it comes to making any changes because of U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the company is taking a "wait and see" approach. Georgia must cut its power-sector carbon emissions rate 34 percent from 2012 levels by 2030 to meet EPA targets. Georgia Power will play a major role in shaping how that’s done, but the utility said in this report that it won’t make any specific decisions on its own generation until Georgia’s air branch officials file a plan with EPA. This means the IRP itself is likely a work in progress and could be updated within the next two years.

IRP stirs up enviros

As expected, clean energy advocates railed against what they consider to be the electric company’s failure to seize opportunities to expand renewable energy and energy efficiency.

"Although Georgia Power has touted the benefits that renewables offer to its customers, the company is proposing to throttle back on the growth of its successful renewable energy program that propelled Georgia forward as a solar leader," said the Sierra Club’s Georgia Chapter and local officials for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in a joint statement.

"Instead, the company will continue prioritizing old, dirty and expensive coal-fired power plants to meet any future demand for electricity and flat-line energy efficiency programs that help families save money," it said.

Georgia Power has the groundwork from which to build. The company boasts a plan to have 1 gigawatt of utility-scale solar on the grid by the year’s end. EPA’s Clean Power Plan is giving a boost to renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, too, clean energy advocates argue.

Criticisms aside, Georgia Power dedicates more than 50 pages to renewable energy and advanced technology options, signaling that changes are afoot. This is a stark difference from the company’s 2013 IRP, which had no plans to add renewable energy or capacity of any kind.

The Georgia Public Service Commission will hold hearings before taking any steps to approve Georgia Power’s IRP. Renewable advocates already are gearing up to push Georgia Power to close more coal-fired power plants.

The utility also has promised actual numbers for what it is willing to pay rooftop solar owners who sell excess power to the grid. The IRP contains a detailed evaluation of the costs and benefits of solar. The value of solar figures, like many other significant numbers in the IRP, have been deemed trade secret and have been redacted.

Kurt Ebersbach, a senior attorney in the Atlanta office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said those numbers are going to be more important than whether Georgia Power is or isn’t including enough renewable energy in its projections.

"If you get market pricing signals right through things like rooftop generation, then you can sit back and let the market decide how much solar is needed," he said.