ATLANTA — Georgia’s energy use and production has radically shifted in recent years despite the absence of a singular energy policy.
“I think we can one day see Georgia self-sufficient for energy,” said Jill Stuckey, the acting director of the Herty Advanced Materials Development Center, a Savannah-based lab owned by the state that develops practical applications of research.
From reduced reliance on fossil fuels to expanded use of nuclear and the exporting of biomass, the state’s energy portfolio is on a path very different from the dominance of coal and imported oil of past decades. The shift is all the more remarkable because no single entity is responsible for setting Georgia’s energy policy.
The governor, Legislature, Public Service Commission, researchers, federal regulators and private industry have say over various aspects – usually working independently but sometimes in conjunction. The new landscape was highlighted during the World Energy Engineering Congress that met in Atlanta. Here’s a snapshot of the changes:
NUCLEAR – Most Georgians have seen headlines about the state’s leadership in what some observers term a nuclear renaissance. Georgia Power, the electric-membership cooperatives and several dozen cities that jointly own Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro are building the nation’s two first commercial reactors in 30 years.
“It’s the most important economic-development project in the state of Georgia,” said PSC Chairman Tim Echols. “Everyone is invested in it.”
Utility executives have said it would not have been possible if the Legislature had not changed policy to permit Georgia Power to levy financing charges on its customers before electricity generation begins.
NATURAL GAS – Increased nuclear isn’t the only way the state is reducing its reliance on coal. New drilling techniques that led to a significant drop in natural-gas prices prompted Georgia Power to begin switching generating plants from coal to gas, most recently at its Plant McDonough in Atlanta completed last month. Tightened federal emissions standards – and the likelihood they’ll tighten further – contributed to the reasoning.
Additionally, the Public Service Commissioner Doug Everett nudged Atlanta Gas Light Co. into building a network of fueling stations for vehicles that run on cleaner-burning, domestic natural gas.
SOLAR – A major policy decision looms regarding solar. Two different proposals seek to end Georgia Power’s monopoly to allow competitors to market solar power to retail customers, a question the General Assembly may face when it convenes in January.
The giant utility wants a different policy in which the independent solar producers sell limited amounts of wholesale electricity to Georgia Power.
“It’s not going to be a situation that I see where we go down the solar path in a big way,” said Steve Morton, Georgia Power’s energy-efficiency manager.
During last week’s conference a California-based expert endorsed the company’s approach.
Investors are skittish about backing competitors to a utility, according to Ryan Park, the director of business development for REC Solar, a California-based installer of photovoltaic panels.
“But they’re happy if that power is going on to the utility, someone they believe will definitely be there for the decades to come,” he said. “So, the way this program is designed is the way … to really move this industry forward.”
BIOMASS – In the state called the Saudi Arabia of pine trees, firms in South Georgia are turning the trees into energy. Some are producing ethanol, a gasoline additive. Others are making pellets for export to Europe where utilities burn them to generate electricity to comply with European Union emissions mandates.
The $1 billion invested in pellet plants could soon triple, according to Herty’s Stuckey.
“The European mandates have been a godsend for south Georgia,” she said.
She predicted that in less than a decade scientists will have developed a process to affordably turn pine products into synthetic gasoline, diesel and highly profitable petrochemicals.
CONSERVATION – Georgia consumers implemented a major policy change themselves when they approved a constitutional amendment last year to allow state agencies to enter into multiyear contracts. That way, companies will install energy-saving equipment in state buildings at no upfront costs and take their payment from the savings in the years to come.
The conservation industry could soon double to 14,000 jobs, estimates Kathy Robb, a manager with Atlanta Gas and co-chair of the Georgia Energy Services Coalition.
“What we’re trying to do is create some size in Georgia,” she said.
On the flip side of the coin, the legislature just removed the tax on energy manufacturers use, effectively lowering the price. It was done to spur jobs, but Georgia Power’s Morton notes that private companies here have done much less to conserve energy than in other states where it is more expensive.
However, the Legislature did add another conservation measure when it granted authority to cities to allow golf carts on streets. Not only do they use less energy, but the state is the home to the world’s three largest cart manufacturers.
WIND – “We need a symbolic wind project here in Georgia,” PSC Chairman Echols said.
The president of Georgia Power parent Southern Co., Tom Fanning, said recently that it continues to investigate the feasibility of erecting turbines off Tybee Island but that wind potential is limited in Georgia despite a recent, steep decline in the cost of equipment. Last week’s storm that hit the Northeast reinforced his questions.
“One of the worries you have with offshore wind is when you have hurricanes,” he said. “When you’re in an area of the United States that is subject to hurricanes, that is a concern.”