Unseasonably pleasant weather greeted ralliers from all over the Deep South in Centennial Olympic Park, just under the windows of the Omni Hotel, where the federal Environmental Protection Agency was inside holding regional hearings on mandating lower carbon dioxide intensity from power generation nationwide.
"Georgia can build on the success we’ve already had ramping up solar power and bringing in clean, low-cost wind to create jobs, lower power prices and clean up our air," said Mary Anne Hitt, national director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. The West Virginia resident traveled to Atlanta for the hearing and the club was a prime mover in organizing green turnout.
The EPA wants all the states to cut how much carbon dioxide is emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity produced. Georgia’s intensity was 1,500 tons per MWh in 2012, according to the EPA’s math. Federal officials want the number down to 834 by 2030.
Georgia Power, the state’s biggest electric utility, and the place where 2.4 million Georgians get their power, says that’s too much.
“The guidelines penalize Georgia for taking early action in constructing new nuclear,” said Ron Shipman, vice president of environmental affairs at Georgia Power.
Georgia Power is doubling capacity at its nuclear Plant Vogtle on the Savannah River near Augusta. That project, plus a handful of others started by other utilities over the past few years, has helped break a generation-long drought of new nuclear construction.
Given that step it’s already made away from carbon dioxide Georgia Power thinks going all the way down to 834 is an oversized burden.
The EPA says its targets were set based on what the agency thought each state, given its mix of power sources, could achieve. Its goal is to cut the nation's share of energy coming from coal to 31 percent. In 2013, about 39 percent of the nation's energy came from coal.
Georgia Power has some flexibility in how much power it generates from its main fuels, coal and natural gas. When natural gas is cheap, as it has been lately, the utility leans on its gas plants. When demand for electricity is high, the company leans on all its plants. Shipman said the cost of the new regulation, if passed in its current form, cannot yet be quantified.
According to the EPA, carbon dioxide causes two big bummers: global warming and poor health.
Organic farmer Joe Reynolds dates his professional life by weather events. In 2008 on a Douglasville farm, he suffered drought. In 2009, “there was the crazy 20-inch rain event,” which washed him out of business for the season. On his East Lake farm “in 2012, we had the 107-degree day.”
At farming conferences, he said, the talk is about erratic weather: warmer weather year-round, punctuated by temperature spikes and polar vortex dips; and rain and drought extending too long. Too much summer heat fries the organic matter in his soil, he testified to the EPA. And warmer winters fail to freeze weeds and pests to death.
“In 2013 I found myself in one of the wettest years I’ve ever farmed in, which adversely affected my ability to do much of anything,” said Reynolds.
Dr. Robert Geller, chief of pediatrics at Grady Health System, said air quality directly impacts health, and that air pollution may be more severe for children because they generally inhale more air than adults compared to their body size.
There are clear health benefits to less combustion from sources like cars and power plants, Geller said. Cuts could be costly, he added, but “we are better off working for clean air and paying our money there instead of paying it in adverse health effects.”
Asthma is not caused by carbon dioxide molecules per se, but the EPA calculates that the steps power companies would make to meet the 2030 targets could have the side effect of cutting particulate matter, which does contribute to the lung disease. Besides that, by the EPA’s calculation, the global warming caused by carbon dioxide contributes to ozone formation and the poorer air quality that does cause respiratory difficulties.
“The League of Women Voters strongly supports the clean power plan proposed by the EPA because it is essential that we take steps to reduce carbon pollution for the sake of our children and grandchildren,” said LWV national president and Georgia resident Elisabeth MacNamara.
Members and supporters of the League, she said, have already generated more than 50,000 comments in favor of the rule.
But Scott Segal, executive director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said his energy company members provide power to millions of customers across the Southeast. He’s got concerns.
This proposal “could eventually threaten the reliability of our country’s electric supply and result in significantly higher costs without appreciable benefits,” he said.
For one, carbon emissions are an international issue, he said. For two, a polar vortex or a heat wave under the new rule could “subject citizens to energy shortages and price shocks.”
Atlanta hearings continue throughout the day. Public comment on the proposed rule closes on Oct. 16. The EPA is set to take any action by next June.
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