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Georgia Power’s New Bid to Pass Coal Ash Tab to Customers Gets Tailwind With Court Decisions

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A fight is set for the coming months as state regulators weigh how much Georgia Power’s customers will pay for electricity and to close coal ash ponds against how much the company and its shareholders will shoulder.

The state Public Service Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on Georgia Power’s 20-year plan for the company’s transition to cleaner forms of energy from its aging coal-fired power plants. The long-term plan is intended to provide a roadmap with an updated timeline for closing 29 coal ash ponds and a dozen coal-fired electricity generators over the next decade.

The Georgia Supreme Court dealt a major blow to ratepayers saddled with coal ash cleanup costs when it declined to take up a Sierra Club lawsuit that argued that state regulators in 2019 gave Georgia Power virtually unchecked ability to assess fees to clean up toxic ash residue created by burning coal.

The court’s decision now puts more pressure heading into Thursday’s vote on Georgia Power’s 2022 Integrated Resource Plan and the ensuing rate case hearings leading up to a vote in December on the company’s request for an incremental 12% rate hike on the average residential bill over the next three years.

Since 2020, its 2.7 million customers have been paying coal-related fees and Georgia Power analysts are forecasting another $1.1 billion in costs to clean up coal ash ponds and store the waste in landfills until 2025.

The Sierra Club hopes to persuade commissioners not to approve Georgia Power’s cap-in-place method, which will leave coal ash sitting in groundwater after 10 ponds are permanently sealed.

Advocacy groups are continuing to call for the state’s largest electricity provider to provide more details and justification for costs.

“We’ll make the argument that it’s not reasonable or prudent for Georgia Power to close ash ponds against state and federal regulations,” said Isabella Ariza, an attorney with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. “And that it’s obviously not fair to have ratepayers pay for it.”

Georgia Power argues the coal ash has not compromised drinking water and intends to cap the coal ash in place where much of it now is collected in ponds near the company’s legacy electricity plants. Residents who live near the company’s massive Plant Scherer near Macon say they worry that coal ash has leached into nearby groundwater and then in their well water.

The company is also proposing to redistribute coal ash from 19 ponds at landfills, another ash pond or recycle it.

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said that the Sierra Club’s appeal relied too heavily on arguments that had been rejected by lower courts.

“As we have consistently stated, the issue of cost recovery was thoroughly discussed and evaluated through Georgia’s open and transparent regulatory process with the Georgia Public Service Commission, with the PSC’s decision affirmed by the Superior Court of Fulton County and by the Georgia Court of Appeals,” Kraft said in an email.

In 2019, state regulators approved a $1.8 billion rate hike that increased the average residential monthly bill by 11% over the course of three year.

This fall, Georgia Power, PSC staff, and a collection of environmental, consumer advocacy, and energy-related groups will make their cases with testimony at public hearings and filings with state regulators.

This story was written by Stanley Dunlap, State Government Reporter at the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.