Electricity is an essential component of our every day lives – brightening our rooms, cooking our food, charging our phones and computers, keeping our homes the right temperature, running factories and stores. But here in Georgia, significant amounts of the electricity for our homes and businesses (62% in 2011, though the amount was lower in 2012 and will likely continue to fall) come from ten coal-fired power plants, nine of which are over 30 years old and many of which lack modern pollution controls. While producing the electricity we use, these plants also produce 168,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants each year, leading to more than 500 annual deaths in Georgia alone. Some pollution is released into the air, while some is stored in coal ash lagoons, where it can leach toxic heavy metals into nearby water. These true costs of power coming from coal are often hidden as silent dangers to our health and environment. We are excited to bring these equity issues around electricity costs into the very timely conversation Partnership for Southern Equity is leading about equity in Atlanta.
Unfortunately, these costs of electricity are not distributed equitably among citizens. Communities that are already at an economic disadvantage are also more likely to bear the brunt of the impacts of coal pollution, as many are located in the shadows of polluting coal facilities, where air and water quality typically suffers. Burning coal for electricity also contributes to climate change, which, as we'll discuss below, disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color.
Fortunately, there are ways to change our electricity system to reduce the risks, and changes are already in the works as Georgia Power is proposing to shut down some of its oldest coal plants for cost reasons. In Atlanta, we have an important opportunity to promote better choices every three years, including this year, when our elected Public Service Commission reviews Georgia Power's long-term plan for providing energy. The plan affects three areas where equity is important: cost of energy consumption, public health, and climate change.
Energy Consumption and Economic Costs
Energy efficiency programs offered by utilities use technological improvements to help citizens lower their energy usage, and subsequently their bills, while maintaining the same or better level of comfort in their homes. Examples include helping residents replace old light bulbs with more efficient ones, tune up or replace old air conditioners, and weatherize doors and windows to prevent leaks. The Georgia Public Service Commission will be reviewing Georgia Power's energy efficiency programs this spring, and there will be an opportunity for citizens in Atlanta who are Georgia Power customers to advocate for expanded programs that can lower their bills and reduce the need for additional power plants.
Efficiency is an equity issue because high home energy costs disproportionately affect low-income citizens and communities of color. Low-income homeowners and senior citizens often live in leaky older homes that tend to let heated or cooled air escape, making them more vulnerable to rising energy costs. High energy costs hit low-income renters especially hard, since tenants pay the energy costs of wasteful buildings and appliances, while owners have little incentive to pay for improvements if they are not paying the utility bills.
Well-designed and adequately funded energy efficiency programs can help everyone, including low-income households, use less electricity. Often, these programs are offered or financially supported by utilities. In the Carolinas, for example, utilities are helping low-income neighborhoods with programs that are also proven to be less costly than generating electricity. To make sure that these programs are both accessible to everyone and effective, it is important for low-income customers to be part of the utility's planning process.
There are several examples of low-income energy efficiency programs that have been successful in the Southeast: Tennessee Valley Authority's manufactured home incentive, Duke and Progress Energy's Neighborhood Energy Saver program, Duke Energy's low income lighting program, and the South Carolina Electric Cooperatives' on-bill financing program. Currently, Georgia Power contributes funding to the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) to administer low-income energy efficiency weatherization. While this is an appropriate first step, Georgia Power can, and should consider innovative approaches that can reach a broader audience.
For example, only Georgia residents that are 200% below the poverty line may participate in the GEFA weatherization program, and not all of the customers are able to participate due to budget constraints. In contrast, because Duke Energy's low-income lighting program saves more money for the utility than it costs to run it, any residential customer can participate. Similarly, the Neighborhood Energy Saver program targets an entire neighborhood and goes door-to-door installing energy efficiency measures. In the Carolinas, the program has achieved up to a 90% participation rate within the chosen neighborhoods. Finally, the on-bill program provides financing for customers to retrofit their homes without requiring the up front capital to pay for the efficiency upgrades. This opens the doors to cash strapped customers that may not otherwise qualify for low-income assistance.
Health Impacts to Low Income Communities and Communities of Color
Coal-fired power plants emit air and water pollution that is hazardous to our health. Air pollution includes sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which form smog and ozone problems, causing heart and lung illnesses ranging from asthma to heart attacks and death. It also includes mercury, a potent neurotoxin that falls into our waterways and contaminates fish we eat, and carbon dioxide, the major cause of climate change. Modern pollution controls can reduce some of these harmful air emissions (though not carbon dioxide), but the pollutants they capture must be stored somewhere, and can end up in our water. Waterways near power plants can become contaminated by the heavy metals in coal ash, the solid residue left after the coal is burned, including lead, arsenic, chromium, selenium, and even radioactive material. And controls, while only solving part of the problem, often cost more to install than simply retiring the coal plant. Of course, even then, the coal ash that has accumulated and been disposed of on site for decades presents a challenge that must be dealt with responsibly.
Statistics show that African Americans and other persons of color bear a disproportionate burden of the health impacts from living in proximity to coal-fired power plants. According to research by Dr. Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University, blacks in 19 states and Latinos in 12 are two times more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution poses the greatest health risks. Not surprisingly, African Americans and other people of color show a higher rate of respiratory impacts than the general population. In 2002, a report done in conjunction with the Clean Air Task Force showed that 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant, and that asthma attacks send African Americans to the emergency room three times more frequently than their white counterparts. Research by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that mercury exposure can have greater impacts on certain groups of recreational and subsistence anglers including low-income Southeastern white populations; low-income Southeastern African-Americans; low-income women; and Hispanics across the country.
Fortunately, Georgia Power has requested permission from the Commission to retire many of its oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants, which do not have modern pollution controls for mercury and other toxins. Georgia Power's long-term plan is an important chance to weigh in with the Public Service Commission, which will need to approve those closures this spring.
Climate Change Impacts
In the last few years we've started to see more and more extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, the Midwest and Southeast droughts, and wildfires out west. Scientists believe these are manifestations of global climate change that has already started due largely to massive carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Communities of color and poor households across the United States will suffer more from the economic and health consequences of climate change than other Americans because they have fewer resources to adapt. Here in the Southeast the impacts may be even more severe as the four main risk factors associated with climate change – drought, flooding, hurricane force winds, and sea-level rise – all impact our region.
Georgia Power's Plant Scherer in Juliette, Georgia is the nation's largest single source of carbon dioxide, and our many other coal-fired power plants also contribute significantly, as stated above. Retiring some of those coal plants will not only reduce pollution that harms local health, but can also lessen Georgia's contribution to climate destabilization if appropriate investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency are made. This underscores the importance of participating in the review of Georgia Power's long-term plans this spring.
What you can do
- Contact the Commissioners and ask them to approve Georgia Power's proposed coal retirements and support expanded energy efficiency programs.
- Mark your calendar to attend the Public Service Commission hearings on April 16-17, May 21-22, and June 18-19.
- Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper.
- Stay tuned for more information to attend an Energy Equity Forum hosted by SACE and PSE
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is proud to partner with Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta to promote energy choices that address climate change and protect safe, healthy communities for all. We are eager to be a part of PSE's efforts to lead a diverse conversation on issues of equity, and to work together to highlight energy as an area of concern. In addition to public education and outreach about Georgia Power's plans, SACE will be applying to intervene as a party in the Commission proceedings on behalf of itself and its members.