More solar and what else? A breakdown of the approved Georgia Power IRP

SACE Renewable Energy Manager Charlie Coggeshall and Energy Efficiency Director Natalie Mims contributed to this post.

Supporters of the Sierra Club, Georgia Solar Utilities, and Atlanta Tea Party Patriots rally for solar energy before the IRP approval (from @gabeyondcoal)

You’ve probably heard the news by now: Georgia is going to get a whole lot more solar in the next few years thanks to Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald’s motion on Georgia Power’s long-term energy plan (the Integrated Resource Plan or IRP). That plan, which was approved in Atlanta last Thursday by the Public Service Commission (PSC), has far-reaching implications for Georgians, from reducing coal plant pollution to increasing low-income energy efficiency opportunities.  Here’s the scoop:

Solar is a big winner in Georgia Power’s 2013 IRP. By a 3-2 vote, the Commission approved a motion by Commissioner McDonald to expand the Advanced Solar Initiative (ASI) by 525 MW over a couple years, adding 260 MW in 2015 and 265 MW in 2016. The bulk (425 MW) will be provided by utility-scale projects that are 1 MW or greater in size, with the remaining 100 MW coming from distributed generation (DG) projects, defined here as those under 1 MW. Though this second phase of ASI will have some differences – such as allowing utility-scale projects to exceed 20 MW in size – the underlying premise remains the same: there will be no upward pressure on rates, and customers may, and likely will, even save money.

While SACE would have preferred a greater amount of solar over a longer period of time, we applaud this second big step by the Commissioners to advance solar energy in Georgia. It is great news for the state’s citizens and economy, and particularly the solar industry, which now has an improved level of job security for the next three and half years.

Georgia’s solar prospects have come a long way in the past 12 months and this IRP was no exception. The state has gone from little more than a blip on the solar capacity meter, with less than 20 MW, to some prominence with recognition as one of the country’s “sunniest” markets. Although Georgia Power can be credited for spawning the ASI with 210 MW last fall, the Company included ZERO new solar in its 2013 IRP. SACE testified in favor of additional solar energy, along with an array of other stakeholders; public comment supporters ranged from solar industry groups to the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. As with the vote count in the hearing room, rallies outside the PSC showed an overwhelming majority in support of solar.

Replacing windows can help lower energy bills.

Energy Efficiency
The news on the energy efficiency front isn’t quite as rosy. SACE recommended that the PSC require Georgia Power to step up its energy efficiency programs so that more parties could take advantage of them. Specifically, as compared to the Company’s proposal, SACE suggested (download our brief here) that Georgia Power offer a program portfolio that had eight more programs; achieved 70% more energy savings (which translates to bill reductions between 5-12% on average); and reduced bills for the majority of customers in every rate class (residential, commercial, and industrial). The final IRP will increase energy savings goals by a paltry 10% over the company’s initial program. Considering how successful Georgia Power’s existing programs are, we feel it was a missed opportunity to expand them. We’ll keep looking for ways to increase energy efficiency at Georgia Power.

One significant door was left open, however, thanks to a successful motion by Commissioner Tim Echols. His motion requires Georgia Power to provide details on a low-income energy efficiency program that was only included in its aggressive case scenario and was not proposed as part of the Company’s plan. The motion requires Georgia Power to provide the PSC with details on that program within 30 days, at which time the Commission will decide whether to certify (approve) it.

There were limited details provided in the filing to indicate how the Company determined the savings opportunity for the low income program, but it considered a weatherization kit containing weather stripping, door sweeps, caulk, foam sealant, and clear patch tape. The Company estimated that this package of measures would save households over 980 kWh a year, and was a very cost-effective program. Other utilities in the Southeast offer a similar package, but also include other cost-effective measures like efficient light bulbs, low-flow shower heads, faucet aerators, hot water heater pipe and tank wraps and information materials so that customers are aware of other low or no cost ways to save energy. Efficiency help can mean a lot to low and fixed-income households with high bills and no money for home improvements that can lower those bills, so we look forward to this process.

The Commission approved Georgia Power’s plan to retire about 2,000MW at 15 coal- and oil-fired units, which is a big win for Georgians’ health and for ratepayers. This news means that Plant Harllee Branch (near Milledgeville) and Plant Kraft (near Savannah) will be shut down, along with 5 out of 7 generators at Plant Yates (in Newnan). Last year, these plants emitted nearly 4 million tons of carbon dioxide and over 27,000 tons of toxic sulfur dioxide. By 2016 when the retirements are complete, Georgia will be free of a significant amount of air pollution. Several local leaders from the Plant Branch’s area asked Commissioners to support a solar policy that would aid the county’s economic development, and we hope the solar expansion helps their area become ground zero for sustainable, beneficial re-use of coal plant sites.

Unfortunately, the PSC did not stop Georgia Power from making an expensive upgrade to Plant Gaston that will allow it to inefficiently burn natural gas. Plant Gaston is located in Alabama but Georgia Power is entitled to half the power it produces. Without this fuel switch, the plant would not be able to comply with new Clean Air Act rules and probably would need to be retired. The company found that whether to retire or upgrade Gaston was a close call but went for fuel switching. SACE’s analysis used corrected assumptions and found that the point at which the expensive upgrade paid off for ratepayers was so far in the future, requiring the plant to run for longer than Georgia Power has ever run a fossil fuel plant, that it was in ratepayers’ best interest to retire it. Unfortunately, the Commission did not agree.

Georgia Power also got the nod to install pollution controls on several other coal-fired power plants, which we view with mixed feelings. Plants Bowen, Hammond, Wansley, and Scherer will be outfitted with various technologies to control sulfur dioxide and mercury in their air emissions. While these controls reduce harmful air pollution, they cannot reduce the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

Finally, some plants were approved to switch fuels. Two generators at Plant Yates will be retrofitted to inefficiently burn natural gas. Plant McIntosh will be switched to burn lower-sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, rather than the Appalachian coal it has historically burned, which will decrease its efficiency. We believe in the long run these plants are candidates for retirement.

Thank you to everyone who came out over the last few months to the Public Service Commission, to testify or just to show the PSC that Georgia’s future matters to you. This year’s IRP made the most significant changes to Georgia’s energy mix in recent memory, and overall we think the results of the process lay good groundwork for continued progress!

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