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Georgia Power to go coal-free by 2028, double renewables by 2035, but advocates decry gas plans

Dive Brief:

  • Georgia Power plans to retire its coal capacity by 2028, according to the 3-year Integrated Resource Plan submitted to state regulators by the utility on Monday, but clean energy advocates raised questions about a dearth of renewable energy additions during the near term.
  • While the utility plans to retire more than 3,500 MW of coal capacity in Georgia, it will be adding 2,356 MW of natural gas capacity from existing plants through six power purchase agreements (PPAs) with the wholesale power subsidiary of its parent company, Southern Co.
  • The IRP notes plans for 1,000 MW of energy storage over a longer period of time and another 2,300 MW of solar over the next three years, as well as further developing distributed energy resources in its service area. While that would double the amount of renewables in Georgia Power’s service area, clean energy advocates say the utility could be doing more in the nearer term.
  • Dive Insight:

    Advocates have already expressed a need for stakeholders to speak up and press the Georgia Public Service Commission to increase requirements for the renewable energy that would be brought on during the 3-year IRP period.

    In 2019, when the utility last filed an IRP, it had only included the addition of 1 GW of renewables, which regulators doubled for that time period when they unanimously approved the plan that summer. Many clean energy advocates credit stakeholder input for leading that change.

    “If you look at what happened in 2019, I firmly believe that the Georgia commission would not have forced Georgia Power to double [its solar] had it not been for an extremely strong testimony from renewable energy companies and advocates in the docket,” Daniel Tait, research and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, said.

    “It’s important to remember that this is only Georgia Power’s proposal, which means the public still has a say in what happens during the IRP process,” Charline Whyte, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Georgia, said in a statement.

    Georgia Power plans to add up to 6,000 MW of renewable generation by 2035, including the 2,300 MW the utility seeks to have approved in this IRP. The utility is also targeting significant growth in energy storage: its 2019 IRP included 80 MW of battery storage, while this year it requested approval to own and operate 1,000 MW of energy storage by 2030. While the bulk of that activity extends beyond the IRP period, the company has done preliminary site development tests at its McGrau Ford substation north of Atlanta to bring 265 MW/530 MWh lithium-ion battery capacity online by 2026.

    Advocates for clean energy said that more could be done faster by the Southern Co. subsidiary.

    “Georgia’s electric system and energy infrastructure must be transformed to rely on renewable power like solar and battery storage rather than replacing one fossil fuel with another,” Whyte said.

    The utility is looking at a slate of other options for its portfolio, including investments to improve efficiencies in some hydropower plants.

    Georgia Power is also seeking approval to extend the operation of the Edwin Hatch Nuclear Plant’s two units, which total 1,848 MW and have licenses that expire in 2034 and 2038, respectively. Georgia Power owns the majority stake of that plant, which is jointly owned with Oglethorpe Power Corp., Municipal Electrical Authority of Georgia and Dalton Utilities.

    The two new units under construction at the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear plant would each have a nameplate capacity of around 1,117 MW. Georgia Power is a 45% owner of that expansion project, but the development is many years behind schedule and a recent report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says the costs for the new reactor units have surpassed $30 billion. The projects were initially expected to cost $14 billion.

    Federal nuclear regulators on Wednesday published a Federal Register notice inviting the public to request a hearing on Unit 4’s notice of its intended operation. Unit 4 is expected online in early 2023. The hearing would give an opportunity to stakeholders whose interests might be affected by the unit’s proposed operation.

    The utility remains focused on transitioning away from coal, retiring 12 coal-fired units.

    Georgia Power would replace some near-term capacity with PPAs from natural gas plants, given the low price of natural gas.

    “Right now, we see this as the best alternative to replace the energy that was made available through the coal units,” Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack told E&E News, regarding the cost of natural gas PPAs with existing plants.

    Clean energy advocates remain skeptical of the choice to add more fossil fuels.

    “Coal plant retirements are still too far off and Georgia Power wants to procure a massive amount of fracked gas,” Whyte said. “Transitioning to clean energy would save customers money immediately, invest in our local economy, and provide good jobs here in Georgia.”

    The utility also wrote in its IRP that the existing natural gas resources would be necessary for grid reliability as the utility expands its renewables. Under Georgia Power’s plan, it would nearly double the amount of solar it has online by 2035.

    Other Southeast investor-owned utilities, from Duke Energy to Entergy, have similarly proposed adding natural gas capacity to match the intermittent qualities of renewable resources.

    However, Tait said, many of these utilities have low amounts of renewable energy penetration compared to areas that are looking to natural gas for reliability concerns, such as parts of the European Union.

    “The utilities here in the South, Southern Company, etc, are claiming that, well, we have to have all this gas to balance renewables and be able to ramp fast and that kind of stuff,” Tait said. “So they’re making the arguments that you’re seeing in Europe or California, but we’re not Europe or we’re not California, we’re a good 10-15 years behind that at best.”

    According to Tait, Southeast utilities are “putting in solutions to problems that don’t exist here to keep the gas when in reality, what we should be doing is building the renewables as fast as we can.”

    Source: Utility Dive