April 15, 2024

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with WABE and Grist, a non-profit, independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

Georgia is enjoying an economic boom. Lured by tax breaks, high-tech data centers and manufacturers flood the state. It is a trend that state leaders celebrate at every opportunity.

“We’ve seen more than 171,000 new jobs come to our communities, we’ve brought more than $74.5 billion in investment to the state,” Gov. Brian Kemp told a gathering of Georgia lawmakers, business leaders and other bigwigs earlier this year. .

But that growth has created a problem: all the new businesses need a lot of electricity.

The state’s largest electric utility, Georgia Power, now says it needs significantly more energy, significantly sooner than planned, to meet the surge in demand. So the company charges to buy and generate that electricity. Their plan calls for solar power along with battery storage, but it relies heavily on fossil fuels, including three brand new turbines powered by oil and natural gas.

Clean energy customers and advocates reject this plan. Large groups of students and medical professionals dominated the public comment sections of hearings on Georgia Power’s request, pleading with the state’s Public Service Commission to reject it.

“Fossil fuels kill. They’re killing our ecosystems, they’re killing our people, and more importantly, fossil fuels will kill our future generations,” Emory University student Dakota Tauteeq told the commissioners.

A version of this is playing out all over the country, as demand for power grows for the first time in years. Electricity-hungry data centers are popping up to serve everything from email and digital medical records to artificial intelligence and cryptocurrency. Federal policies favoring US-made versions of electric vehicles, solar panels and other technology are bringing manufacturing back to the state. The fight against fossil fuels is driving people to electrify formerly gas-powered cars and appliances.

All of which tests the heart of the Biden administration’s climate policy: making it cheaper and more attractive for utilities to use renewable energy instead of climate-warming fossil fuels.

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, includes $125 billion in tax credits for electric companies that choose wind, solar and battery storage. The idea is that incentive will tip the scales, so when a utility needs to make energy, it will choose renewables over fossil fuels.

“It’s this great big pool of money, this game changing law for them, with millions and millions of dollars that they can take advantage of,” Sierra Club analyst Noah Ver Beek said.

But it is not clear that utilities are taking full advantage of the huge pool of money. Like Georgia Power, many utilities still want to expand fossil fuel plants, or build new ones.

Ver Beek and his colleagues studied the energy plans of 50 utilities that have been submitted or updated since the law passed. They found that about a third failed to include the new clean energy supply in their models at all, while many that did did not account for the full potential of the incentives. For example, many did not consider the bonuses the IRA offers for locating projects in communities affected by the fossil fuel industry, offering competitive wages, or using American technology.

“For one, it’s just a lack of ambition on the part of the utilities,” Ver Beek said. “If you can get an extra 10 percent off the cost of your project, that’s a lot of money left on the table.”

Even when utilities pursue tax credits for their clean energy projects, as Georgia Power has said it will, many still turn to fossil fuels.

That’s because the tax credits run counter to the nationwide jump in energy demand. Faced with so much demand, Bank of America utility analyst Julian Dumoulin Smith said utilities are falling back on their old standby: fossil fuels.

“What we’re seeing is a growing trend to return to gas plants, mostly to effectively return to the grid,” he said.

The idea, he said, is not to run new gas plants all the time, but to turn them on for limited periods when energy demand is highest — think, when it’s very hot or very cold, so people turn on their air conditioning start turning on or heaters.

This concept is known as a “peak plant,” and it reflects how utilities plan. They base their plans not on the typical amount of power used most of the time, but on those highest peak times. That way, the utilities can guarantee that they will have enough power without blackouts. Many utilities see fossil fuel plants as the only reliable way to meet demand peaks because they can be turned on quickly to meet the need immediately.

But that’s no longer true, says Shelley Robbins, who works on the Phase Out Peakers project for the nonprofit Clean Energy Group.

“The good news is that there are now alternatives,” she said.

Those other options are a bit more complicated than flipping the on/off switch at a power plant. They need utilities to manage the grid more creatively, instead of just making power and sending it out to meet demand.

Electric companies can reward people for using less energy during those hours of peak demand, an approach known as demand response. They can improve power lines so they can carry more electricity, which is called re-conduction. Utilities can even help many homes and businesses install solar panels with battery backup and then use all those batteries when they need extra power, a concept known as a virtual power plant.

Several utilities around the country have tried all of these methods and proven that they can work.

But, Robbins said, the regulators who approve utility plans and the lawmakers who set state energy policies are used to turning to experts when making decisions on complex issues like these — and the experts they trust are still in the fossil fuel industry.

“That voice is still there, still talking to lawmakers and utility regulators, and you know, whispering in their ear, that fossil is the only solution and that’s just not true,” she said.

Robbins says regulators, lawmakers and utilities need education about these alternatives — and the fact that they are now reliable solutions to climbing energy demand. The fate of US climate policy and planet-warming emissions depends on this shift.

Andy Posner, CEO of the climate-focused nonprofit Capital Good Fund, testified in the Georgia hearings:

“The commission shall direct Georgia Power to develop and submit a plan for expediting interconnection and witness testing of customer-located solar and storage systems…”

This is energy nerd talking for “more solar power on homes and businesses, and batteries to go with it.”

The idea here is that rooftop solar can be more than a way for an individual homeowner to save some money and go green. It can also back up the energy grid. When demand for power peaks—say, on a hot day when everyone turns off their air conditioning—the utility can draw some power from a whole bunch of individual customers’ batteries to cover any gaps.

This is just one alternative to adding fossil fuels. Others have proposed strengthening transmission lines so they can carry more electricity at once, and incentive programs to lower the all-important energy demand peaks.

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