WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Georgia small-business owner Julian Smith keeps hearing that the Obama administration’s latest climate regulations will drive up local electric bills. He doesn’t believe the prediction, but he isn’t arguing: The fears are doing wonders for his solar-panel installation company.
“My phone is blowing up with new customers,” Smith, owner of SolarSmith LLC of Savannah, said in an interview. “It turns out that if you tell everybody the amount they will spend on electricity will skyrocket, they will believe you.”
In Smith’s home state, as in the rest of the nation, businesses and consumers are struggling to size up competing claims about the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants, released June 2. The proposed regulations are among the most sweeping and complex in the EPA’s history, promising to revamp the way electricity has been generated and distributed for a century.
To reduce carbon emissions 17 percent nationwide by 2030, the EPA created separate goals for states based on the agency’s determination of what each could do to generate electricity with less carbon pollution and to use it more efficiently.
In practice, the EPA rules, if upheld by the courts, will mean less electricity from plants that burn emission-heavy coal and more from cleaner-burning natural gas, nuclear or renewable energy. It will also, the EPA predicts, curb demand for electricity by promoting efficiency, and actually lead to job gains and lower electric bills — though some industry leaders vigorously dispute those last two points.
The EPA’s proposed standards vary widely by state. Texas, rich in natural-gas reserves, will alone shoulder a quarter of the total U.S. carbon-emissions reductions, with a 39 percent cut required over 15 years. Coal states including Kentucky, West Virginia and North Dakota, with few gas plants and little history of renewable energy, will face modest reductions.
“If you agree with the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, then I think it comes out to be a pretty defensible plan,” Sam Shelton, founder of the Georgia Tech Strategic Energy Institute and a research engineer, said in an interview. “They give a rational defense of everything they’ve come up with.”
For Georgia, the proposed reduction of 44 percent by 2030 counts among the larger cuts. Atlanta-based Southern Co., which owns the state’s main utility Georgia Power Co., says the proposal would crimp its operations and hurt consumers.
“The aggressive mandates in the proposal could limit the ability to run the Southern Company system’s generation fleet in the most efficient and cost-effective manner for customers,” the company said in an e-mailed statement. It will mean “forcing Americans to pay higher electricity prices and hurting the diversity of our energy supply.”
Clean energy advocates, however, say that Georgia could accomplish much of what President Barack Obama’s EPA is demanding with initiatives already underway. Ten aging coal- fired plants are scheduled to be shut, two atomic-power units are due to come on line by the end of 2018 and Georgia Power has begun a solar energy program at the behest of its state regulator.
Georgia currently gets most of its electricity from coal, followed closely by nuclear and natural gas. The EPA’s plan calls for boosting the share of the last two at the expense of the first.
“This is a modest proposal for Georgia,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has fought for more renewable power and energy efficiency. “They are already on the glide path for some of these coal retirements.”
The state’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, also has said EPA’s goal is within reach. As a congressman, Deal supported legislation that would have prevented the EPA from issuing rules of this kind under the Clean Air Act. With the proposal out, he took another tack.
“Utilities in Georgia have been very proactive and are probably already taking many of the steps that these new regulations may in fact require,” he said in an e-mail.
Even modest changes can have a dramatic impact on communities, however.
Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond, a 60-year-old, 800-megawatt facility in Coosa, near the Alabama border, isn’t among the 10 coal plants scheduled to be closed. Despite its age, it could provide energy value for years to come, spokesman John Kraft said.
Last year it ran at less than 12 percent of its capacity, which makes it the sort of underutilized plant that could be mothballed in response to the EPA’s rule, according to Ashten Bailey, an environmental lawyer in Atlanta.
The plant is surrounded by pine trees and farmland on a four-lane road dotted with crumbling houses and boarded up shops on one side and a paper mill on the other. The county jobless rate is 7.9 percent and one in five residents lives in poverty.
“That’s one of the few places out here where they pay more than minimum wage,” said Jennifer Storey, 41, the owner of J Salon, a two-chair beauty parlor next to an auctioneering school. “If Washington wants to fix a problem, they need to fix unemployment first,” she said.