Why Georgia’s climate policy experts are feeling hopeful in 2022

Last year brought climate disasters to places around the country, grim climate predictions from scientists and, with the faltering of the Build Back Better Act, little environmental action from Congress.

And the clock is ticking. Experts have for years emphasized the need to drastically, rapidly cut emissions.

“[2022] will be a really important year for public decision makers to decide what kind of future we want to live in,” Katie Southworth, advocacy program director at Southface Institute in Atlanta, said.

Still, as important as it is to act urgently to rein in climate change, experts and activists also said it’s essential not to give up.

“I think there’s always hope,” Cicely Garrett, who works on the energy program at Partnership for Southern Equity, said. “That’s why we all show up to do this.”

So to start off 2022, WABE’s environment desk asked experts why they’re feeling hopeful in the New Year.

The infrastructure bill bringing money to communities

Despite failing to pass a flagship environmental bill, Congress did manage to agree on an infrastructure package. It covers a lot of typical areas, like roads and bridges. But it also has some climate-related elements, like building more electric vehicle chargers and funding for energy efficiency improvements. 

While energy efficiency may not sound as exciting as fast new cars, Southworth said it is important.

“It doesn’t mean warm beer and cold houses. It means a higher efficiency HVAC system, a higher efficiency refrigerator,” she said. “So it really just is a way of conserving the energy that you do use and using it more efficiently, which is the easiest way to not only lower your energy bill, but also reduce your carbon footprint.” 

Southworth said the additional federal funding will both boost weatherization programs for low- and moderate-income housing, and also support making public facilities more efficient. Plus, she said, energy efficiency initiatives also create jobs: someone has to do the actual work of replacing insulation, installing new HVAC systems and other upgrades.

Georgia Power planning for the future

Georgia Power is the biggest utility in the state, and every three years it lays out how much electricity it thinks it’s going to need in the future – and where that electricity is going to come from. 

This breakdown of how much coal, how much solar, how much nuclear and so on is called an Integrated Resource Plan, and it’s a public process. The utility has to get approval from state regulators at the Public Service Commission.

Garrett said she’s looking forward to that process. Her group is working with members of the public who want to get involved and speak out about where they want their energy to come from. 

“To see people become more civically engaged, for advocating for their own communities, I think, as always, is critical and core to our work,” Garrett said.

It’s likely the next round of Georgia Power planning will include more renewable energy. The utility’s parent company, Southern Company, has committed to closing more of its coal plants. Plus, alternatives are getting cheaper, said Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols.

“It’s amazing how cheap solar – utility scale solar – has become the cheapest thing that we have out there on the grid. And the batteries allow us to extend the life of that solar in any given day,” he said. “I think what you’re going to see the Public Service Commission do [in 2022] is go all in on batteries, along with a lot more utility scale solar”

Echols also wants to make changes to help expand rooftop solar. A pilot program that made rooftop solar feasible for more Georgians capped out last summer, but Echols hopes to expand it next year.

Businesses going green

Electric vehicles have dominated the headlines in Georgia lately, with the new Rivian plant coming, and Bluebird making electric buses. EV supporters hope this can drive change in Georgia’s EV policies, which aren’t very friendly to vehicle buyers and owners.

Georgia Tech economist Dan Matisoff is encouraged by the EV buzz, but not because of state policy; he’s interested in “green market transformation” and building momentum around greener business. 

“Some of my research shows that as you generate some momentum, it can beget more momentum,” he said. “There are these information spillovers that reduce costs that help build supply chains. The Biden executive order around sustainability, procurement, that has the potential to be huge.”

Because of the sheer heft of federal spending, the administration’s move to electrify the federal fleet can help spur EV growth in the private sector too, Matisoff said.

Even if they’re not part of the EV or clean energy supply chain, Southworth said other businesses have an important role to play: they can lower their own emissions.

“Commitments being made by large, mid and small size businesses across the state really send a signal to our decision makers, local and state level, that we really want to see significant change,” she said. “And we want to see it in a timeframe that helps us address climate in our lifetimes.”

Southworth is also encouraged by cities including Atlanta, Savannah and Athens that have made clean energy commitments.