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Georgia’s Solar Challenge Is Power Direction Not Generation

The state has more than 18,000 transmission lines that move power from a myriad of energy sources. But, as the state transitions away from fossil fuels, the existing infrastructure is inadequate.

To wean America off fossil fuels, the federal government is pouring billions of dollars into building renewable energy across the country.

But this agenda faces a major hurdle: the existing network of transmission lines is inadequate.

With a massive energy transition underway, the century-old practice of transmitting energy from point A to point B requires a new set of rules, federal and state support and utility buy-in throughout the U.S.

More than 18,000 transmission lines in Georgia move power from a myriad of energy sources.

"They usually take years to build, you have to meet the demand when it comes online," Craig Heighton, director of external affairs for Georgia Transmission Corporation said. "Those days are gone where you just draw chalk on the map to go from point A to B. We have to do the least obtrusive way to get the job done, and that happens through an extensive routing and siting process."

Now, both power sources and demand are changing, and the process to get transmission lines built is growing more complicated, hindering clean energy development.

The issues slowing the transmission buildout include inadequate planning at the state levels, as well as procedural hurdles like opposition from local landowners — from whom developers must secure easements — and counties that have authority to issue permits.

"If you wanted to have transmission in place, say, by 2030, you better have already started planning and working on it right now. It takes that long. That's the problem with trying to do this: people think 2030 is a long way off. In planning terms, that is today," Howard Smith, a renewables developer who managed Georgia Power's integrated resource plans from 1992 to 2001, told McClatchy.

The Biden administration is paying attention. The U.S. Department of Energy Grid Deployment Office is addressing the transmission buildout issue through needs studies and billions in loans and grants.

"There is a pressing need for additional electric transmission infrastructure and increasingly extreme weather events must all be accommodated by the future power grid," the Grid Deployment Office found in their 2023 National Transmission Needs draft study funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Inflation Reduction Act is providing $769 million in grant authority to facilitate the siting and permitting of interstate (and offshore) electric transmission lines.

Additional funding from the Inflation Reduction Act will provide $2 billion in direct loan authority for facility financing.

"There are efforts to incentivize renewables from the IRA and there is a lot of money to deal with this transmission challenge. I'm hopeful there is going to be help," Public Service Commissioner Jason Shaw said.

According to the study, the Southeast would need an increase of 5-8 million megawatt miles of transmission by 2035 to decarbonize by 95 percent.

Solar and hydroelectric power are the two renewable energy sources that are the most likely to meet this demand. Georgia already ranks seventh in the nation for total installed solar capacity, at 5,041 megawatts, which is enough to power roughly half a million homes.

Solar Throws a Wrench in the Gears

When Georgia's grid was built, power plants were sited where it made the most sense to put coal and natural gas plants: next to bodies of water and railroads and near the places where large amounts of energy were consumed, cities like Atlanta, Augusta and Macon.

Today, both sides of that equation are changing: the coal plants that still operate are slated to be decommissioned by 2035, and the demand for the electricity they generate is increasingly concentrated in just one part of the state — the Metro Atlanta area — as it experiences rapid population growth and becomes home to new industrial sites.

The challenge that this dual shift in the production and consumption of energy presents for the planners of Georgia's grid is how to adapt the transmission system — the fabric that links power plants to customers.

"Transmission is a very important consideration to expansion in the state, particularly with renewables and with retirement of generating units," said Mike Robinson, Georgia Power's vice president of grid transformation, who oversees the utility's transmission and distribution plans.

Simon Mahan, executive director of Southern Renewable Energy Association, put it more bluntly: "Transmission constraints have made it hard to retire coal."

Comparatively little information is publicly available about the state of Georgia's transmission system. The Southern Company claims much of the details of its utilities' grids are trade secret, exempt from public disclosure.

In regions of the country where utilities buy power from generation facilities on markets, grid operators show real-time energy prices on publicly available maps. But Georgia Power's vertically integrated structure — in which one company controls generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity — means there are no energy prices to show, so little information is publicly available about the operations of the grid at any given time.

Once every three years, a window into this opaque system is opened to the public when Georgia Power submits its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for review by the Public Service Commission, the elected body that regulates the power company — if the PSC staff or intervenors request specific information during this process.

Renewables advocates were encouraged by the PSC's decision, in its 2022 IRP, to approve plans for 2,300 megawatts of new solar energy and 500 megawatts of battery storage — though less so by its decision to also approve 2,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation.

All of this new energy was needed to replace the energy from coal plants, which the state is decommissioning for a number of reasons, including decarbonization, the local health impacts of pollution from coal plants and the growing regulatory costs of operating them.

This summer, the first of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle in Burke County began generating power, helping replace a likely significant chunk of the coal-generated power Georgia is slated to lose with carbon-free energy — although the utility has not made public its estimate of the new units' fuel savings.

Where to Put Solar Panels

The state's best conditions for solar panels are in South Georgia, where land is cheap, sunny, sparsely inhabited and flat.

The large-scale deployment of solar generation in South Georgia would require an accompanying transmission buildout to get this energy to the Atlanta region.

There is some disagreement among renewables developers on how to address this issue.

While it's widely acknowledged that the right solution will involve a mix of all these methods, some are pushing for more rooftop solar development north of I-20 in order to bypass the transmission hurdles altogether, and advocating for legislative solutions like net metering in order to incentivize more property owners to install solar.

"We're looking at building solar above I-20, because that's where even though the land may be more expensive, it's closer to the Atlanta load; it's what's needed. So I think you're going to see more companies migrate that direction," said Smith, the former Georgia Power IRP manager, who now runs a renewable energy consultancy.

Others emphasize the importance of upgrading existing transmission lines in South Georgia and building new ones.

But to do this requires planning — and some observers say transmission is the weak spot in Georgia Power's grid planning.

Georgia Power's Profit Model

In much of the country, energy grids are planned and operated by regional transmission organizations (RTOs) — systems within which the power companies buy and sell electricity across a wide region on an open market.

In Georgia (and other Southeastern states), by contrast, power companies are granted monopolies over the generation, transmission and distribution of energy for a given region. State regulators guarantee Georgia Power a certain profit rate and set customers' electricity rates to match it.

A 1973 law known as the Territorial Act divided the state into regions to be exclusively serviced by Georgia Power (the state's major player in energy), a handful of small local utilities, and "unassigned" areas where rural electric cooperatives generally operate. The transmission system is jointly owned and operated by Georgia Power, the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, the Georgia Transmission Corporation, and the city of Dalton.

Smith says Georgia Power is "still in the mindset of the 20th century" when it comes to planning its transmission for new solar projects — in that the utility treats transmission as an "afterthought" to the planning of new generation.

"South of Macon, anything that is open, cheap land, solar has gone there, and it wasn't designed from a strategic standpoint," Smith said. "They didn't worry about transmission."

Robinson said the suggestion that Georgia Power doesn't plan transmission adequately is "inaccurate."

"With the vertically integrated model that we have, all three of those things are planned together: generation, transmission, and load," he told McClatchy.

In the 2022 IRP, Georgia Power recognized the difficulty of building transmission lines to connect generation in South Georgia by proposing to require the new solar to be built north of I-20.

This was part of a broader proposal Georgia Power called the North Georgia Reliability and Resilience Action Plan, which Robinson said showcased the power company's "openness to consider proactive transmission."

The PSC eventually rejected the north-of- I-20 requirement after critics pointed out the infeasibility of this plan, due to the expensive land values in North Georgia as well as the unsuitability of mountainous terrain for large solar farms.

Georgia Power Priorities

Some critics of Georgia Power say its monopoly model disincentivizes effective transmission planning for the energy transition.

Daniel Tait, an Alabama-based researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewables watchdog, said Georgia Power's approach to transmission planning — build generation first, then worry about transmission — is characteristic of Southeastern utilities.

Tait offered two potential reasons for this, but both boil down to profit.

The first is a resistance to interconnection with the rest of the country's electric grids.

In its push to decarbonize the American energy grid, the Biden administration is seeking to encourage the construction of interregional transmission lines — those that connect different RTO regions to one another and are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

This buildout could help iron out the inefficiencies caused by the nationwide patchwork of energy grids, and bring down energy prices overall.

"If we were proactively planning for transmission, and had better connectivity to our neighbors, it would be much more likely that low cost wind energy, for instance, from the upper Midwest would be able to get down to the Southeast and compete, because it's so cheap," Tait said.

But Georgia regulators allow Georgia Power to earn more profit than federal regulators would.

"If you have two ways to solve the same problem — one is a new transmission line that would be federally regulated and one is a new natural gas power plant that would be state-regulated — they are almost always going to pick the state-regulated gas plant because they could earn more profit even if the investment were the exact same," Tait said. "The transmission system is their prized asset. They are drawing a ring around it and saying, 'We don't want anyone to touch this."

Robinson said Georgia Power builds interregional transmission when necessary, and has included such projects in several recent IRPs.

"We do regional planning within the Southeast and with our neighboring utilities," he said.

The second reason Georgia Power might seek to avoid better transmission planning, Tait said, is that, at the state level, the company benefits from having little excess capacity in its transmission system — and risks competition from rival suppliers if it builds too much new transmission.

While Georgia Power is typically the only builder of traditional power plants in the state, renewable projects are often built by third-party developers.

If the builder of a new energy project seeks to bring their facility online, they are responsible for paying to connect it into the grid.

But "the more spare capacity that you have in your transmission system, the more you can add to your system at a cheaper clip," Tait said, so more power lines built proactively would allow more third-party developers to compete with Georgia Power. "If somebody is going to build a natural gas plant, who's going to do that? Only Georgia Power — so they're going to do that, in northern Georgia.

"They're going to make their profit. If they build a transmission line or multiple lines into south Georgia to bring renewable energy up, those renewable projects will actually go out for bid, and Georgia Power or a Southern Company affiliate may or may not win the bid."

Robinson defended the utility's structure and said the proof of its success is in its results: "Our longstanding history of reliability."

"We believe strongly that the vertically integrated model serves the citizens of Georgia best," Robinson said, noting that Georgia Power did not have to impose rolling blackouts during the Feb. 2021 winter storm that devastated Texas, or during last December's Winter Storm Elliott.

A History of Transmission Lines in Georgia

A web of transmission lines has been winding along U.S. interstates and roads and through farms and backyards for over a century, delivering electricity across long distances from power plants to homes and communities.

Transmission lines are huge copper and aluminum wires, up to three inches thick, held by large poles that tower over the ground, at times reaching up to 150 feet.

"They are ginormous extension cords," Thatcher Young, a renewables developer at Velo Solar, a commercial solar company, said.

Early steel-tower transmission lines began sprouting up in the Atlanta area from 1906 through the 1920s. The electrification momentum gained in the 1930s with President Franklin Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Act, which brought light and power to wide swathes of America for the first time.

The buildout boomed in the mid-20th century in Georgia.

"From 1935 to 1960 it was very easy to build transmission lines due to the sparse population of rural Georgia," Young said.

Tensions over transmission line development grew in the 1980s, in part because of agricultural development and farmland use.

"The quarter-mile strip that went through the farm is difficult [to build on], you can't grow crops under it," Young said.

Moreover, many find transmission lines in their yard unsightly, rejecting plans and slowing down the process.

(c)2023 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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