Cities Are Making Big Climate Promises. Keeping Them Can Be Tough

Two years ago, Atlanta was widely lauded when it committed to have all homes, businesses and city operations rely largely on renewable energy in coming decades. It was part of a wave of cities responding to more intense flooding, heat and storms, and setting ambitious goals to tackle climate change even as the Trump administration ignores the issue.

Since then Atlanta has held public forums and put together a plan to achieve its goal, which the City Council adopted this past March. It includes boosting energy efficiency, using more renewable power and buying renewable energy credits.

The city has been held up as a leader by the Sierra Club, awarded a grant in the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge and given props by climate activist Al Gore, who declared that if Atlanta can do it, any city can do it.

But it turns out one thing Atlanta can't do is choose where its energy comes from. As in many places, the utility — Georgia Power — makes that decision because it's a monopoly. It's also regulated by statewide elected officials who are all Republican, none of whom has emphasized climate change as a concern.

And so not long after Atlanta's City Council voted on a climate plan, it's become clear that meeting its lofty goals could prove harder than expected.

Economics trumps carbon emissions

That reality was stark in April, as the Georgia Public Service Commission started a first round of hearings on Georgia Power's latest long-range energy plan. It projects out over 20 years, though it is updated every three.

Georgia Power acknowledged that Atlanta couldn't achieve its climate goal without the utility's help but was frank about the fact that it was not factoring in the city's wishes.

"The way we plan the system, we aren't usually doing it for just a certain customer," Jeffrey Grubb, director of resource planning at Georgia Power, said during questioning.

To be sure, Georgia Power is moving away from fossil fuels. Its carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by more than half since 2007, largely because the company has switched to natural gas as it's become cheaper than coal. The company has added solar power the past several years, and it's the only utility in the country currently building new nuclear power units, which have no carbon emissions. Georgia Power is also proposing to close a coal-fired power plant, close a coal unit at another plant and add additional solar power.

Still, its long-range planning process has made clear that economics is what's driving all this, not emissions reduction. Georgia Power says it's bound by state regulators to make decisions in the interests of its customers, prioritizing cost, safety and reliability.

"So, carbon emission reductions are not in and of themselves in the customers' best interest?" asked Kurt Ebersbach, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

No. Not, that is, unless government policy put a price on carbon, thus making renewable energy the cheaper option, Grubb said.

Ebersbach asked about a different hypothetical: If the economics changed, and coal became cheaper than natural gas, would Georgia Power use more coal, thereby raising greenhouse emissions?

That answer from Grubb was yes.

More pledges with no mandate

Georgia Power's priorities would seem to be out of line not only with Atlanta's climate goal, but also with that of its own parent company.

Last year, Atlanta-based Southern Company announced its own emissions target: "low-to-no-carbon" by 2050. In addition to Georgia Power, which is its biggest electric utility, Southern Company also owns utilities in Alabama and Mississippi.

CEO Tom Fanning recently told shareholders he's confident that over the next decade the company will cut carbon emissions by half compared to 2007 levels. The company has even linked Fanning's pay with carbon dioxide emissions reductions, so if it stays on track over the next couple of years, he stands to earn up to $2 million in additional incentives.

At its annual shareholder meeting, Fanning took hours of questions, including many from shareholders concerned about how, exactly, Southern Company intends to follow through on its carbon goal.

Fanning reassured them it's a priority and that the company's electric utilities know that. But, he said, "in order to reach no carbon by 2050, we need technologies that don't exist today." Technologies like carbon capture and energy storage. He said Southern Company will "lean in" to help get there.

"I think we will help invent the future," he said, touting his company's research and development department as more robust than competitors'.

But for now, Southern Company is not directing its utilities to veer away from what state regulators ask of them. And in Georgia, the Public Service Commission is not asking for carbon dioxide reductions.

"Our goal is not exclusively clean energy," says Commissioner Tim Echols. "We have as part of our goal to have a reliable grid, an economic grid, a safe grid and a clean grid. And so we're not going to move forward with clean unless it's economic."

Criticism that Atlanta's not doing enough

At the hearings on Georgia Power's long-range energy plan, another obstacle to Atlanta's climate goals seemed to be the city itself. No one showed up, even though City Hall is across the street. And the city didn't apply to intervene in the proceedings, which would have allowed it to question experts and present its own evidence and witnesses.

"They should be there," says Jairo Garcia, who teaches at Georgia Tech and used to work on climate policy for the city.

He says it's urgent to take action on climate change as soon as possible, and if the city misses out on this energy plan, "we have to wait three years. Basically, we are waiting for the next mayor to do something about it?" he says. "It's just very disturbing."

"Just because we weren't there doesn't mean we weren't monitoring and engaging in the process generally," says Amol Naik, director of resilience for the city of Atlanta.

Naik says he's also had meetings with public service commissioners and productive conversations with Georgia Power. And at a later hearing, Councilman Matt Westmoreland did cross the street from City Hall to attend the public comment session.

As it stands now, Georgia Power's long-term energy plan would not do much to advance Atlanta's goal, which calls for moving away from coal, natural gas and nuclear in 16 years.

The final plan won't be approved until July, and it's possible there will be changes.

"There's a chance that our commission could be sympathetic," Echols says. "We do have the ability to compel Georgia Power to do things."

But, he says, Atlanta needs to be more involved.

Local tools for a global problem

The absence of national leadership on climate change has pushed more cities, states, companies and even some utilities to step up and say they want to reduce emissions. That can be "exciting," says Mindy Goldstein, a professor at Emory Law School and director of the Turner Environmental Law Clinic. But she says the piecemeal approach is not the most efficient way to tackle climate change.

"This problem is really one that's global in scale," she says. "You're going to, in a perfect world, have global solutions. That's just not where we are today."

She points out that Atlanta is doing what it can: the city is working on a program to install solar panels on a dozen municipal buildings, and on increasing energy efficiency.

And while a few places have already achieved carbon-free electricity, Atlanta won't be alone in struggling to meet that goal. "This is a long-term campaign, and a long-term fight," says Kass Rohrbach, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign.

But even within the limits of the way U.S. power markets are currently structured, Goldstein thinks Georgia Power and state regulators could be doing more.

"I don't think history will look kindly upon folks who refuse to grapple with a really difficult reality, that we're going to need to change the way that we produce energy in the world," she says.

WABE reporter Emma Hurt contributed to this article.

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