SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Did you know? People living in three major cities in the Southeast spend around 20 percent or more of their income on electricity. A recent study looked at energy use in 48 major U.S. cities to find where energy burdens were the highest. So, where are these high-energy burden cities? And what do they have in common? Watch SACE’s new video to find out.
It turns out three cities with the highest energy burdens, particularly for low-income communities, are located in the Southeast. Memphis, Atlanta and Birmingham all have communities paying nearly 20 percent of their income on utility bills. These cities are all also majority-minority and share a common history, each playing major roles in advancing the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Memphis, TN, which has the nation’s 6th largest population of African-Americans, holds the unfortunate position of having the highest energy burden of any major metropolitan city in the country. In the Home of the Blues, some families are paying power bills three times higher than the average bill – representing 26 percent of their income. Atlanta, GA, where 54 percent of the population is African-American, low-income communities are paying an average of around 18 percent of their income to keep the lights on. Low-income communities in Birmingham, AL, whose population is almost 75 percent African American and was at the heart of the 1963 Civil Rights Movement, are spending almost 19 percent of their income on power bills.
What’s with all this energy disparity? It turns out poor housing is to blame for higher power bills, especially in economically disadvantaged communities of color. Leaky windows and doors, poor insulation, even outdated appliances and HVAC systems add unnecessary costs. Many families are unable to access current energy efficiency programs offered by utilities that could otherwise help them weatherize their homes and put money back in their pockets. Financial status, credit score, economic status and housing status, like being a renter, are some of the barriers families face in trying to acquire the necessary funds to improve their homes’ energy efficiency.
SACE staff across the Southeast are working with communities and utilities, local and regional, to increase energy efficiency opportunities for these vulnerable communities and help them reduce energy consumption. In each of the Southeast’s high-energy burden metropolitan cities, we are organizing with allies to bring the stories of these communities to utilities and create smart energy efficiency solutions that can ease these extreme energy burdens.
Georgia Power’s long-range energy plan (the Integrated Resource Plan or IRP) was approved on July 28 by the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC). The final plan, as agreed to through a settlement between Georgia Power and several other parties, including SACE, represents the largest increase in renewable energy ever in Georgia.
During the IRP hearings, which took place over the past six months, SACE urged the Commission to require Georgia Power to expand their newly proposed Renewable Energy Development Initiative (REDI). Originally proposed to add just 525 new megawatts (MW) of renewable energy in 2018-2020, the new plan more than triples that amount to 1600 new MW of renewable energy.
Through the leadership of Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, the Commission also considered, but did not adopt, a motion to further expand the renewable energy component of the plan. SACE and other experts testified that the utility could feasibly add a minimum of 2000 MW of renewable energy without causing any upward pressure on rates. While the new plan does not reach those levels, it is a substantial improvement.
The plan also demonstrates further steps away from coal by one of our region’s most coal-dependent utilities. The Commission approved the retirement of Plant Mitchell and capped capital expenditures allowed by Plants Hammond and McIntosh. By continuing to reduce Georgia Power’s reliance on dirty coal-fired power plants and grow renewables, we all stand to benefit from improved air quality. This is great news for the health of all Georgians and the climate.
Of course, the plan was not without its disappointments. The plan also commits ratepayers to a $99 million plus financing costs bill for Georgia Power to investigate and license new nuclear reactors in Georgia. The proposed location for new nuclear is in Stewart County along the Chattahoochee River, increasing the impacts on this already-stressed water resource. SACE remains concerned about Georgia Power’s reliance on this risky, expensive energy resource at ratepayers’ expense, particularly with the current schedule delays and cost overruns at the under-construction reactors at Plant Vogtle along the Savannah River.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Earthjustice, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club recently reached a settlement agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation (TDEC) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to better protect Tennesseans from toxic metals and other pollutants in water discharges from TVA’s Gallatin, Bull Run and Kingston coal plants.
After fighting the issue for more than six years, TDEC and TVA finally agreed to reduce the pollutants in water discharged under the three plants’ Clean Water Act operating permits issued by TDEC. Under the settlement agreement, TVA must incorporate new federal guidelines for the discharge of toxic pollutants like arsenic and selenium and submit updated permit applications for Gallatin, Bull Run and Kingston to TDEC by November 2, 2016. By including these updated public health requirements in the operating permits for these three coal plants, TVA will reduce the amount of toxic pollution it dumps in our waterways by over 90 percent for most significant pollutants.
TVA’s practice, like many other major utilities in the Southeast, has been to adopt the minimum requirements for wastewater discharge for their coal plants. TVA has largely failed to update its operating permits despite industry innovation that has made it cheaper for coal plants to reduce the amount of toxins it discharges into our rivers and streams.
The settlement agreement is a critical piece in protecting our health and our environment in Tennessee, especially because all three of the coal plants will be operating into the foreseeable future. TVA does not maintain good water monitoring records, but based on the most recent information we could find, these three coal plants discharged over 1,300 pounds of selenium, which is highly toxic to fish, and over 1,700 pounds of arsenic, a potent carcinogen and neurotoxin, in 2015. Under the new permits required by the agreement, the selenium discharges will fall by 97 percent, and the arsenic discharges will fall by 94 percent.
“We believe this settlement is long overdue. All of TVA’s operating facilities should not adversely impact our region’s water supplies ” said Stephen A. Smith, DVM, Executive Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “By ensuring that both TVA and TDEC move quickly to incorporate the most protective pollution standards, our communities and waterways will be healthier and safer for us all to enjoy.”
In July, SACE was represented by Alissa Jean Schafer at Intersolar North America, an annual solar conference and trade show held in San Francisco. The conference and show is international in scale, bringing together advocacy, industry, and policy representatives from around the world. SACE was honored to represent the Southeastern United States in several ways throughout the week, including Schafer’s participation on the conference planning committee, her moderation of a panel “Smart Renewable Energy: Grid Structure & Big Data” and her presentation of a session titled “The Wild West of the Southeast Grid.”
In Schafer’s presentation, she provided an overview of the Southeast’s varied energy landscape, highlighting the fact that many Southeastern states are far behind more mature solar markets, despite their incredibly high solar potential. The primary thing preventing the Southeast from reaching its solar potential, Schafer explained, is a lack of consistent, smart, renewable energy policy. There are many different varieties of rules, regulations, and policies throughout each state, making it challenging for the region to escape the “valley of death” that exists between technological advancements, outdated policies, and widespread application of renewable energy. Schafer stressed that a transition to a smarter, upgraded grid requires all parties working together. This includes industry, advocacy, utilities, and policymakers! Learn more about SACE’s work on solar here.