Electricity costs are rising across America—and a big part of it is due to our efforts to make it “cleaner.”
Some states have contorted themselves into a pretzel to make it happen, leading to occasional mass outages and other issues. Even in Georgia, electricity generation is no longer the leading source of carbon emissions according to Drawdown Georgia, a group of scientists and researchers led by Georgia Tech’s Dr. Marilyn Brown.
Greenhouse gases here in the Peach State fell by 5% between 2017 and 2021, even though our economy grew by 10%. That is partly due to the fact that carbon emissions from Georgia’s electric power plants declined by more than 15% as we increased reliance on natural gas and solar. But rates are rising here and across the country due to the transition.
Let’s start with solar—the cleanest source of energy at our disposal—at least in Georgia. With no wind to speak of and very little hydro, Georgia will be sixth in the nation by 2024 in deploying utility-scale solar. While you can’t see it in metro Atlanta or even Savannah, where POWER will host its Experience POWER Week this summer, from Aug. 14-17, solar arrays are scattered across rural Georgia in massive fields, and it is an important part of our energy future.
Getting that energy back to urban areas requires inverters, substations, and upgraded transmission lines. And to retain that energy longer, our utilities are funding massive grid-tied battery systems. I heard Dominion’s CEO recently say that closing coal and then adding solar and new transmission lines to replace it was slow and expensive, due to permitting. And everyone knows of California’s challenges with the Duck Curve.
We too in Georgia have been closing coal plants. I often liken it to the difference between a charcoal grill and a gas grill, and what the cleanup is like, just at home. Not only does natural gas burn cleaner and have less particulate matter, but there is no ash involved. And the babysitting bill for that “ash” is astronomical, almost the cost of the original estimate for the ongoing two-reactor expansion of the Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant.
Half of our current energy generation in Georgia now comes from natural gas, which has 90% less greenhouse gas emissions and half the carbon dioxide than coal. And our Public Service Commission just approved Georgia Power acquiring six more PPAs [power purchase agreements] for natural gas.
Why do we need gas PPAs and Vogtle? Because you can’t add a million electric vehicles (EVs) by 2030 and not add more baseload power. That is Georgia’s estimate for EVs. Places like California will need 5,000 MW for its trucking fleet alone, according to Forum Mobility.
And what about the cost of the fuel itself? For 10 years, natural gas has been cheap. Scientific data showed it was getting results. Then along came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. European countries, who also abandoned coal, either boycotted, or were cut off from, Russian gas.
U.S. exports of gas rose to record levels, causing our own prices to spike over the past two years. From Savannah’s Kinder Morgan export terminal, gas went to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the UK, France and Spain in massive quantities last year. That impact alone will cause a temporary jump in electric bills of 12% in Georgia. Other states also are feeling the pain.
Knowing that too much dependence on natural gas leaves us vulnerable to that market’s volatility, Georgia and soon other states are diversifying their energy mix by adding nuclear power. At Plant Vogtle, Georgia is building the first nuclear power units this country has seen in more than 30 years. While the capital construction costs may be the costliest generation yet, the ongoing costs of this carbon-free source of energy that will soon power 500,000 homes will be among the lowest available for 80 years or more.
The big winner in all of this is air quality, and your lungs. Ushering in a new paradigm is never easy, and certainly not cheap. But in the end, I believe the efforts will be worth it. Let’s keep it going.
—Tim Echols is vice-chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission. He will be a keynote speaker at POWER’s Experience POWER Week events in Savannah, Georgia, in August.