Georgia Power plans to phase out coal, but coal ash remains a challenge

The coal-fired Plant Scherer, one of the nation’s top carbon dioxide emitters, stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga. Georgia Power officials say they are planning to phase out coal but coal ash remains an expensive challenge. (AP Photo/Branden Camp, File)

While Georgia Power is planning to retire its coal fleet, the state’s biggest utility still has to deal with coal ash, a byproduct from burning all that coal.

The company fielded questions about how it’s handling the toxic material at a hearing this week, where officials also laid out their plans for generating energy over the coming decades.

At the first day of hearings with the state Public Service Commission, Georgia Power officials explained their decision to phase out coal.

“It is no longer economic in the long-term to operate the company’s coal units,” said Jeffrey Grubb, director of resource policy and planning at Georgia Power. 

He said coal already doesn’t compete well economically with other energy options, and future environmental regulations could make coal riskier. He said there are good opportunities now to buy more renewable power. Plus, increasingly, he said, companies moving to Georgia want to know that they’ll be able to use renewable energy.

“We just don’t see a lot of positives in the future for the coal fleet,” he said.

Georgia Power is also proposing to double its renewable energy use, invest in its transmission network, do maintenance on hydropower dams to keep them in service for longer and to add battery storage.

The hearings on Georgia Power’s Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, began on the same day that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report saying nations need to cut greenhouse gas emissions faster. In the United States, the utility sector is the second biggest contributor to climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Georgia Power’s parent company, Atlanta-based Southern Company, has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. A handful of local governments in Georgia have also made climate commitments, and for the first time, they officially got involved in the IRP process. Atlanta, Decatur, Savannah, Athens-Clarke County and DeKalb County intervened together.

Plans for coal ash

Even as Georgia Power moves to phase out coal, though, coal ash remains an expensive challenge.

According to Georgia Power, it has about 90 million tons of coal ash around the state, and it expects its program to close all of its coal ash facilities to cost nearly $9 billion over the next 60 years.

The utility wants to invest in reuse, so that other companies can eventually buy the ash to use in other products, like concrete.

On the second day of hearings, Aaron Mitchell, Georgia Power’s director of environmental affairs, told the PSC commissioners that millions of tons of ash could eventually be sold instead of needing to be stored. He said those sales would go towards offsetting the costs of closing coal ash ponds, which are passed on to Georgia Power customers.

But for the ash that needs to be stored safely for the long haul, Georgia Power’s plans for it remain controversial, with some people concerned that it’s contaminated groundwater and threatens people’s health.

The utility is taking two different approaches with its coal ash. In some places, it’s excavating it all and moving the ash into fully lined landfills. In other places, it’s leaving it in the ground with a barrier built around it, but still potentially in contact with groundwater.

Mitchell said that either of those approaches is okay as long as the company complies with federal environmental regulations. But Preston Thomas, a public interest attorney at the Public Service, pushed back – multiple times.

“I’m not asking if they’re both approved; I’m asking if one has concerns that the other does not,” Thomas said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. EPA clarified its coal ash rules to say it can’t be left in groundwater. The federal agency has been meeting with state environmental regulators about permits here, but, Mitchell said, the agency’s announcement doesn’t affect Georgia Power’s plans.

In response to questions from an attorney for the Sierra Club, Mitchell said Georgia Power has detected contamination from coal ash in groundwater, but that the contamination hadn’t traveled past the company’s property lines.

He also confirmed that some of the ash that will stay in place instead of being moved to a landfill would be in contact with groundwater.

“It is true that some of those ponds will continue to have saturated ash after the closure has been completed,” he said. “However, as I’ve described, the company has included engineering designs and details on how the company complies with specific performance standards for those closures in place.”

Monday and Tuesday’s hearings were the first in a series on Georgia Power’s 2022 IRP. They’ll continue in the coming months, and the Public Service Commission will make its final decision this summer.