On July 21st, 2022, a state agency known as the Georgia Public Service Commission (Ga PSC) voted unanimously to approve Georgia Power’s long-term energy plan. The Ga PSC is composed of five elected officials who are responsible for regulating energy in Georgia to protect the public interest. This agency exists because energy utilities are for-profit monopolies and agree to be regulated in exchange for having a guaranteed income and no competitors. The Ga PSC’s job is to set rates, require innovation, and protect the public interest from monopoly abuse.
Every three years Georgia Power presents their long-term energy plan, called the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), to the Ga PSC for approval. Because the plan will cost electricity customers billions of dollars, the Ga PSC must ensure the costs are necessary. Proposed solutions to meet energy growth needs are analyzed and “integrated” (thus, the name) together to ensure future energy needs of the state are met at the lowest possible cost to consumers while meeting other goals like reliability and emissions reductions. That’s how it’s supposed to be, anyway.
How should the people of Georgia view this 2022 IRP? With frustration and disappointment, at best. Parts of the plan, such as the expansion of large-scale solar and retirement of some coal plants, are good. But the majority of the plan will cost Georgians billions of dollars in unnecessary costs and will drive electric bills higher while artificially slow-walking carbon emissions reductions that should be accelerated.
Here are three examples of what’s wrong with this plan:
- The Ga PSC approved substantial amounts of natural gas expansion (2,300 MW) despite the fact that gas prices are highly volatile and expensive. There are far less expensive price-stable clean energy opportunities to meet demand the Ga PSC did not require.
- The Ga PSC refused to expand rooftop solar net metering beyond the 5,000 customers currently enrolled. This is an embarrassment for Georgia when you consider that North and South Carolina both have 5 times the number of homes with solar and Florida has 10 times. South Carolina’s rooftop solar program is receiving awards for its innovative structure, and they now have 25,000 homes with rooftop solar to our 5,000.
- Smart grid and energy efficiency solutions are missing that are commonly required by state commissions to reduce costs. For example, programs like demand response and peak time rebates and advanced energy efficiency investments are missing.
In 2022 renewable energy is cheap and prices are stable, yet the Ga PSC only allows renewables if they profit Ga Power, rural farmers, or benefit corporations like data centers or distribution warehouses who won’t locate to Georgia without a way to meet their net zero carbon goals.
In addition to outright blocking rooftop solar, microgrids and community solar are also or intentionally made too expensive with surcharges.
How and why do we have a commission that not only does not advance modern grid technologies but blocks programs that keeps costs low? In Georgia when a commissioner vacates a seat between elections, something that happens 90% of the time, the Governor appoints a replacement as a reward for campaign contributions. This means none of the commissioners have an energy background. This lack of energy knowledge means the new Commissioner are vulnerable to utility manipulation.
It is a perfect storm that causes great harm. Take a look at their record:
- As of 2022 Georgians pay the 8th highest electric bills in the nation and the 4th highest natural gas bills while having below average reliability.
- Georgia’s generation mix only contains 10% renewables, and Georgia is in 40th place for rooftop solar, despite being a sunny state.
- Georgia is in 45th place for energy efficiency spending which returns $3 for every dollar invested.
- When Plant Vogtle’s costs get put into the rates beginning in 2023, and again in 2024 for the 2nd unit, Georgia will be paying the highest electric bills in the nation. Instead of requiring the utility to pay some of the cost overruns, the commission to date has approved all cost overruns as “prudent and reasonable.” There is no reason to think that won’t continue when the billions come due.
- Georgia Power wastes billions of dollars on overcapacity by building or procuring twice as much energy as recommended by NERC, the National Energy Reliability Corp. All this energy stands by, not used, and very expensive.
What can be done? First, replace the utility business model that incentivizes spending with one that incentivizes saving so Commissioners are less likely to regulate on behalf of utility profits; second, the legislature should fund a Consumer Utility Council that 45 other states have to protect the public interest during utility proceedings; and third, the commission should encourage civic engagement and transparency by reducing redactions, switching to larger meeting rooms, and reaching out to the public to learn about and engage on energy.
The Georgia Public Service Commission will continue to advance utility interests over consumers until reforms are adopted. Let’s bring Georgia into the modern era with a Commission that lives up to its namesake of public service.
Patty Durand is founder of Cool Planet Solutions and was a recent candidate for Ga Public Service Commission.