How Georgia Gets Its Energy – And What Could Change
From the whirr of an espresso machine to the hum of the lights to the soca music playing on the speakers, Joe’s East Atlanta Coffee Shop has dozens of examples of Georgia’s energy mix at work.
It’s not like there are signs saying “Coffee maker powered by solar panels!” or “Lamps brought to you by the Chattahoochee River,” but utility providers like Georgia Power, electric membership cooperatives and city-run power companies do bring you electricity using a variety of sources.
“Big picture, there’s a large power plant that is generating electricity, and then it flows out on to the power grid,” E&E News reporter Kristi Swartz said while walking through the energy process over an iced chai latte. The energy from those massive plants are stepped down until they flow into usable voltage for different items in the coffee shop.
Swartz said Georgia’s current energy mix is made up primarily of natural gas, coal and nuclear, but there are other sources:
“There is a mix of renewables, there's some solar, and there's some hydroelectric power, for those that want to call that a renewable, there's a big movement to expand biomass and to look at wind and storage as well,” she said.
According to the federal Energy Information Administration, about 8 percent of the state’s energy came from renewable sources in 2017.
So who’s in charge of figuring out how Georgia balances its energy needs and if changes need to be made?
He’s the newest member of the elected board that regulates Georgia Power and other investor-owned utilities.
“The Public Service Commission in Georgia strictly deals with the utilities and how that affects ratepayers,” Commissioner Jason Shaw said in his downtown office. “We’re a regulatory agency and a constitutional agency in the state made up of five commissioners who each represent a district based on population.”
Shaw is the newest member of the PSC, which is currently finishing up review of what’s known as an integrated resource plan presented by Georgia Power, which serves more than 2.5 million customers.
“That's the three-year update to the 20-year energy plan for Georgia Power Company,” Shaw said. “And this is where we decide what the energy mix is going to be for the next three years…”
Shaw said this year’s IRP showcases the biggest growth opportunity for the state’s energy mix: solar power. Georgia had basically no solar capacity in 2010.
"But basically, based on where we are now, and what's proposed in the stipulation agreement, we will be looking at close to 5000 megawatts of new solar by 2024,” he said.
That could put Georgia Power at close to a fifth of its energy from renewable sources. Coupled with very low natural gas prices, that means the utility will likely close more coal-fired power plants in the future.
That shift has already cut Georgia Power’s CO2 emissions by about half since 2007.
Back at Joe’s Coffee Shop, Kristi Swartz the energy reporter said the industry is at a transition point across the country, not just in Georgia.
“If you look at everything from big, big appliances, to even smaller devices that we use each day, they're becoming more efficient,” she said. “So that across the board is taking the energy demand and dropping it, or at least keeping it flat.”
Swartz said it’s taking the pressure off of electric companies from needing to build costly plants.
The other thing that’s happening is technological advancements with storage, like batteries for wind and solar electricity.
Factor all of these changes in, and the coffee shop of the future may be getting its power in a very different energy landscape.
The next three years, at least, will be more certain.
The Public Service Commission will issue its final decision about Georgia Power’s electricity plan on July 16.