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Opinion

Clean Energy: Good for Business, Good for Georgia | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Charline Whyte, Georgia Recorder

The clean energy renaissance is here! Thanks, in part, to new federal incentives created by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), more clean energy jobs are coming to Georgia, boosting our economy and helping Georgians provide for their families. In fact, a new analysis shows that 40,000 new jobs could spur in Georgia thanks to the IRA alone.

But 40,000 jobs could be 140,000 jobs (or more!) if Georgia decision-makers decided to prioritize clean energy investments instead of fossil fuel dependence. Clean energy has huge potential to bolster our economy, provide family-sustaining jobs, lower energy bills, and clean up our water and air. With the amount of sunshine Georgia gets, our state has the opportunity to be one of the top solar energy producers in the United States. Georgia is already home to the largest solar panel manufacturer in the Western Hemisphere (thanks, Dalton!). So why is our state’s biggest utility, Georgia Power, doubling down on gas and coal, instead of rapidly building the locally-sourced energy of the future?

The answer is simple: profit and control. Georgia Power is incentivized to stay in the fossil fuel business because it’s how they make the most money and maintain the most control over our electricity system. Southern Company shareholders and executives will rake in millions each year while our power bills continue to skyrocket.

Every time Georgia Power builds a new gas plant, it gets to fully recover the cost of that construction from customers, and then some. So even if gas plants are not the most cost-effective option, they are a great money maker for Georgia Power, at the direct expense of customers. Every time Georgia Power turns on a gas or coal plant, customers pay 100% of the cost for fuel, regardless of the price. Georgia Power is exposed to no risk, so it isn’t incentivized to seek the cheapest options for electricity. This is bad news for customers, who are subject to the whims of an inherently volatile fuel market, where prices fluctuate constantly. Families can’t budget around a bill that could be affordable one day and outrageously expensive the next.

To underscore this point, consider Georgia Power’s current “fuel docket.” Georgia Power has asked the state Public Service Commission to recover $2.6 billion from customers, because the utility essentially “under-charged” customers for the cost of fuel like gas and coal. Georgia Power’s fuel forecast was too low, which means customers have to “pay back” the utility for its own bad estimates. Georgia Power holds no responsibility for its bad estimates, and thus, incurs no risk. This business model shields Georgia Power from gas price fluctuations, which disincentivizes the utility from making better decisions about where to get our electricity, and forces customers to bear the brunt of those bad decisions. At the end of the day, Georgia Power won’t pay a dime more while the average monthly bill for a residential customer using 1,000 kilowatts per hour per month will increase by as much as $23 per month overnight.

Solar is by far the most cost-effective way to produce energy, and many analyses have shown that it would be cheaper for utilities to build new renewable infrastructure than continue to run aging coal plants. Georgia Power still operates several coal plants, and they are by far the most expensive and polluting way to produce energy. In fact, a report found that Georgia Power has made millions of dollars from customers by choosing to burn coal when it was the least economical option. This is bad for customers, but great for Georgia Power’s bottom line.

Solar also has the added benefit of eliminating fluctuating fuel costs because using the sun as fuel is free, forever. Meanwhile, Georgia Power’s gas prices have continued to skyrocket because the market is inherently volatile and impacted by geopolitical events like war and supply chain issues.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the perfect example of what can go wrong when we rely on fossil fuels. The war caused a short-term energy crisis in Europe and increased competition for gas globally, causing the price to skyrocket.  The EU was already investing heavily in the clean energy transition and are now doubling down on those goals to ensure they can keep the lights on. This kind of transition to a more secure and cleaner future can be done here in the U.S. if our leaders have the will.

For years, there has been a concerted and well-funded effort to paint so-called “natural” gas as an ally to the transition to a clean energy future, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Fossil fuel companies like Southern Company, which owns Georgia Power, have spent millions of dollars to try to convince the public that gas is clean and cheap, but the facts say otherwise.

“Natural” gas, which we should really call fracked gas or methane gas, is extracted using an environmentally damaging process that pollutes water and is then piped to gas plants — there is nothing natural about it. Emissions leak and pollute our air throughout the process of extracting, transporting, and burning methane gas. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses contributing to climate change. According to the United Nations, methane emissions are actually much worse for climate change than carbon dioxide.

If you believe that gas is a “bridge” to clean energy, we have another bridge to offer you, and it’s cheaper and more sustainable. The transition from climate-altering fossil fuels to clean energy can be done without wasting time on a half measure like fracked gas. Georgia can be a leader in powering our future. Do our leaders have the foresight to look toward what Georgia and the U.S. needs 30 years from now? It’s up to us to make sure they make the right choice.

This story was written by Charline Whyte, senior campaign representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign and Georgia Recorder where this story first appeared.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.