The 2022 Local Primary Election With Big Climate Significance
Next week’s primary election in Georgia has made national news as a potential bellwether of how voters view former President Donald Trump and his false claims that the 2020 presidential election in the state, which he lost, was stolen. Far from the national news, lower down the ballot, that same election on May 24 will also help shape where and how the state gets its electricity—and by extension whether the U.S. meets its goals of cutting the emissions that cause climate change.
Two seats are on the ballot in the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC). It’s a wonky agency with a wonky name, but as the regulator of the state’s electric utility companies, the PSC will play a critical role helping determine whether Georgia sources electricity from renewable energy or relies more heavily on natural gas as the state’s utilities chart a course away from coal-fired power.
At a conference last month, Chandra Farley (a Democratic candidate) met me. She is running for Atlanta and the surrounding areas on the PSC. Despite the inherent weediness of the agency, and the often distant nature of the climate problem more broadly, Farley is determined to make the race a priority for voters by focusing on how energy challenges affect people’s daily lives. Instead of beginning our conversation with talking points about climate change, she framed her race to me as an opportunity to address runaway energy costs in local communities and “take back power for the people.”
“The entire energy system needs a fundamental shift,” she says. “But that fundamental shift has to be centered on addressing the disproportionate impacts on people.”
Whether she succeeds in engaging voters and changing the shape of the Republican-majority commission will impact not only the lives of the people on the ground who have recently experienced a sharp rise in electricity prices but also the trajectory of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Georgia is not the only state that has this problem. In cities, counties, and states across the country, other races just like Farley’s will help shape the future of U.S. energy policy. Unfortunately, not enough voters pay attention.
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This is the most broad sense of it.This is an important moment in any climate policy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate science wing, has warned that the chance to seriously address the issue and bring down emissions to levels consistent with the Paris Agreement is “narrow.”
Perhaps nowhere is that window more apparent than in the places that are actually building energy infrastructure—and Georgia is a prime example. Georgia Power, which is the largest state-owned electric utility, had announced earlier this year that it would eliminate all coal-fired power plants from the state by 2035. This was a welcomed move considering coal is one of the most polluting sources of electricity. While this will allow Georgia Power to increase its use of renewable power, the current plans call for an important uptake in natural gas. This is contrary to climate scientists’ predictions due the methane emissions from fossil fuels. As the regulator of state electric utilities, the Georgia Public Service Commission oversees Georgia Power’s plans. The current commission is made up of only five Republicans. Some environmental activists claim that they are in bad positions regarding climate policy.
Farley wants to change the direction of the commission—and energy policy in Georgia—by expanding opportunities for local solar and energy efficiency in low-income communities. Each would reduce energy costs and decrease state emissions. That’s a clean-energy argument that people can get behind, she says. “If you really want to talk about jobs, you’d be talking about investing more in distributed clean energy, like small-scale solar, neighborhood-sited solar, energy efficiency—things that actually create jobs.”
Other local races exist across the country. The Arizona Corporation Commission, the state’s equivalent of the PSC, is electing two members this year after narrowly rejecting a plan in 2021 to commit the state to 100% carbon-free energy. In Nevada’s Clark County, home to Las Vegas, voters will elect a county commissioner in a swing district; whoever wins will help determine what kinds of energy projects can be developed in the region. The Nebraskan officials adopted last year a goal of eliminating power plant emissions. Now, the opposition to clean energy is stronger and could slow down progress. In total, voters in 10 states will elect officials to their utility commissions this year with 17 seats up for election in those states, according to data from S&P Global.
These are the only races in which clean energy policy has a direct impact on the result. Governors appoint public utility commissioners in many other states—and, of course, state legislatures can pass significant energy rules, too. It can be a significant amount: According to the League of Conservation Voters, one third of the U.S. population lived in an area that was committed to renewable energy 100% of the time at the beginning of 2021.
Like nearly everyone who works on climate issues, people often ask me “what can I do?” Learning about the local policy issues is a good place to start.
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