On Tuesday, voters in the US state of Georgia head to the polls in twin Senate runoff elections. The elections are taking place because no candidate received more than 50% of the November votes, so Georgia law requires the top vote-getters to contend in a runoff. If both Democratic candidates win, the Senate will have a 50-50 tie, and Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote.
That would be a step in the right direction to deal with the climate crisis, as the Republicans have turned a proverbial blind eye to soon-to-be former President Donald Trump’s executive orders that have shattered over 100 environmental regulations.
Until recently, Georgia hadn’t taken the center stage in many media stories. Then November’s federal election demanded a recount, and the US clung to news of whether Trump or Biden would carry the state. Now Georgia’s Senate runoff races are featured news. In one race, a career businessperson (he made his millions demonstrating how US labor could be moved offshore) is poised against a relatively unknown documentary filmmaker. In the other race, the wealthiest person in the Senate is juxtaposed against the leader of the Ebenezer Baptist Church — the same church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached.
It’s money against media and morality. And climate policy hangs in the balance.
As our own Zachary Shahan has posed, “Georgia, What have your Republican Senators Done for You?”
To begin to live up to its renewable energy potential, Georgia must set statewide emissions reduction targets. Its climate activists have a significant task ahead to shift the political landscape in Georgia away from conservative ideologies about fossil fuel permanence toward visionary yet prudent climate legislation. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp won’t be of much help — he rejects calls for him to initiate executive orders that would enhance climate action and, instead, suggests that local solutions are best.
Cities in Georgia are making progress toward a zero emissions future. Atlanta has committed to 100% clean energy by 2035, and Savannah’s town hall gatherings reinforce many citizens’ desire for the same goals. But more is needed, and Tuesday’s Senatorial races will definitely be determining factors.
Quick Facts about Georgia’s Energy Production
The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) offers the following overview of Georgia’s energy production (updated November, 2020).
- The Elba Island liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminal, with the capacity to receive 1.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, added liquefication and export facilities with the capacity to export 350 million cubic feet per day. Export operations began in August, 2020.
- Two new nuclear reactors under construction at Georgia’s Vogtle nuclear power plant will almost double the plant’s generating capacity and have planned startup dates in 2021 and 2022.
- Natural gas accounted for 46% of Georgia’s net electricity generation in 2019, the state’s four operating nuclear reactors accounted for 26%, coal accounted for 20%, and renewable energy, including hydroelectric power, contributed nearly 9% of the state’s utility-scale generation.
- Georgia leads the nation in densified biomass fuel manufacturing capacity and is a leading wood pellet exporter.
- In 2019, Georgia ranked 9th in the nation in electricity net generation and 7th in retail sales of electricity. Because the state uses more electricity than it generates, Georgia receives additional electricity from other states.
Georgia is a state that needs to move to much more renewable energy, and it can leverage its geographic attributes to enact legislation to fight the climate crisis. A shift toward renewable energy in Georgia would make a real impact on reducing emissions. “Georgia is at a clean energy crossroads,” argues Jennette Gayer, state director of the group Environment Georgia. “We have the potential to continue to grow our clean-energy footprint. The question is do we flatline or continue that upward trajectory.”
Renewable Energy Potential in Georgia
As reported by NPR, like most states in the Southeast, Georgia doesn’t have the kind of state-level mandates that have propelled the growth of renewable energy in other parts of the country. Nor does public concern over the climate crisis or the need to curb greenhouse gases take priority when statewide issues are discussed. Here’s the state of the state of renewables in Georgia.
Hydroelectric power: Georgia holds a wealth of natural and manmade bodies of water which could become hydropower energy sources. Georgia is one of the 10 largest hydroelectric power producers east of the Rocky Mountains and is the 14th largest producer of hydroelectricity in the nation as a whole. In 2020, utility-scale solar and hydropower for the first time generated more electricity than coal during the first half of the year. Of course, hydropower can also cause environmental and social threats, such as damaged wildlife habitat, harmed water quality, obstructed fish migration, and diminished recreational benefits of rivers.
Solar generation: Georgia is ranked as having the 9th highest potential solar capacity in the US. It doesn’t offer tax credits, and the legislature has never created a state renewable portfolio standard requiring utilities to sell renewable energy. There is no net-metering law to let solar homes sell excess energy back to the grid at retail prices. Since land is highly priced, the solar boom is reaching to the state’s farthest corners — often peanut, corn, and cotton country. In northern Georgia, the town of Dalton added a new industry to its manufacturing mix: the largest solar panel assembly plant in the Western hemisphere, a $150 million investment. Moving the state’s conservative legislature toward new policies that encourage rooftop or smaller-scale distributed solar will be a bigger political lift.
Offshore wind: Like Rhode Island, Georgie has the capacity along its Atlantic coast to harness offshore wind. Trump’s decision to rule out energy development along the coast of Florida and neighboring states would bar not just offshore oil and gas drilling – but coastal wind farms, too. The decision contrasts with bipartisan support for offshore wind from federal and state officials, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
The Georgia Climate Project
The Georgia Climate Project believes that Georgia can emerge as a clear leader on climate change with a track record of rigorous analysis and constructive engagement among diverse groups leading to practical, science-based solutions that reduce risks and maximize opportunities associated with a changing climate. The Project seeks to mobilize the economic, environmental, and medical research community to answer a series of key climate research questions called Georgia’s Top 40.
A multi-disciplinary team of experts from across the state has developed the Georgia Climate Research Roadmap to help policymakers and practitioners better understand and address climate change in Georgia. The 40 questions in the Roadmap are grouped into the following categories:
- weather and climate
- ecosystems in Georgia
- oceans and coasts
- agriculture, forestry and food
- energy and transportation
- human health
- communities and infrastructure
- human values, social equity, and environmental justice
- mitigation and adaptation across multiple sectors and scales
“This type of information is going to be really important for policymakers,” says David D’Onofrio of the Atlanta Regional Commission. “On our side, we’re already making plans to do more work on one of the big infrastructure questions by identifying vulnerabilities in our transportation system to climate change and extreme weather.”
Each year in November, the Project hosts the Georgia Climate Conference, an event that gathers hundreds of experts from public, private, and non-profit sectors to discuss what a changing climate means for Georgia, and propose solutions to mitigate these consequences. Stakeholders at the conference have expressed how essential it is that the private sector serves as a positive influence on environmental policy in the absence of federal action. The event also allows academics to engage with the community and share their particular areas of expertise with the greater public. The Georgia Climate Conference is hosted by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and brings together more than 430 leaders and experts from the public, private, nonprofit, and academic sectors to collaborate, raise awareness of work across the state, highlight progress, and identify opportunities to do more. They’re focusing in 2021 on 2 areas:
1. What does a changing climate mean for Georgia?
2. What can we do about it?
Every individual has the power to make a difference in their community, even in the wake of government inaction, and people are beginning to realize this in Georgia through the Climate Conference and other advocacy efforts.