By: Greyson Clark
As each advancing day provides more evidence of another hot Georgia summer, our attention is increasingly focused on two objects: the sun and the air conditioner. Thanks to the sun, many seek reprieve in an AC oasis (while others opt for a covered porch and a glass of sweet tea). As we seek our shelters to cool down, something is different than the years before: summertime sunrays and the AC have become political, as a statewide debate develops over Georgia’s electricity provision. The most recent chapter in the debate begins with Georgia Power’s currently proposed energy plans. Analysis of this debate raises pragmatic concerns and uncertainty about the democratic legitimacy of Georgia’s electricity industry.
This debate has a few actors central to provision of electricity. First is Georgia Power; Georgia Power is by far the largest electrical provider within a deeply regulated market and is a monopoly protected by state legislation. In balance with its monopoly on electricity provision, the Public Service Commission regulates Georgia Power. Finally, among these veterans are some newly emerging actors. As the price of solar energy drops precipitously, solar panel manufacturers and installers (like Suniva and MAGE Solar – which are based in Georgia and bring jobs) are becoming a more prominent part of the electro-political landscape. Further, groups such as Georgia Solar Utilities Inc. aim to introduce competition to the electrical provider market, challenging Georgia Power’s long held monopoly.
Three moving parts have intersected in the last few months, to bring the solar energy debate to the forefront in Georgia. First is the Georgia Power energy plan, which makes plans for no increase in solar energy production in the state. Second is the petition authored by Georgia Solar Utilities Inc., asking the Public Service Commission to require Georgia Power to include solar energy generation within its energy plan. Finally, within the General Assembly there is a legislative challenge to Georgia Power’s monopoly. Representative Rusty Kidd’s HB 657, if signed into law, would create a parallel solar energy monopoly, designed to provide a service that Georgia Power is under providing.
As these factors converge, electricity provision has become a political matter. The Public Service Commission sees this type of energy plan from Georgia Power every three years; yet one commissioner identifies this year’s as themost divisive in his memory. A second commissioner has stated his belief that Georgia Power will not add solar energy to its plan without being forced to by a vote of the Public Service Commission (at least 3 out of 5 members must vote to add solar energy generation). Commissioner McDonald believes at least 2 of his fellow commissioners would join him in supporting a change to the energy plan that would add solar power.
Further aspects of the debate further politicize the energy plan. For the first time, solar energy is losing the stigma of not being “feasible.” Couched in terms of economic development and market shares, support for solar is rising across much of the population. This is evidenced in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s “Market Mapper” application. Among other interactive maps, “Market Mapper” puts adoption of solar technologies in terms of a state-by-state competition. One Public Service Commissioner considers Georgia Power’s reluctance to incorporate solar as a loss for Georgia’s at California’s gain. Similarly, the rising competition between Atlanta and Charlotte is paralleled by Georgia’s uninspired energy generation methods compared with North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio (adopted in 2008 and mandating 12.5% renewable energy generation). Even in southern Georgia at Dublin High School, local officials are bragging about their $3.5 million investment in solar panels; seen as a source of pride, economic and otherwise, officials are projecting large and almost immediate savings. It is telling that Georgia’s politicized solar industry is now argued in terms of market viability, competition, and job creation, showing the silent transition of the issue into the mainstream.
Within the political realm, another interesting phenomenon is occurring. As a variety of groups and perspectives begin to discuss electricity generation, there is a short-term politicization of solar energy. While this is a peak in politicization, it could reduce the long-term political conflict as solar energy adoption receives a consensus in favor. In essence, solar is becoming a non-issue, but it must first peak in the public discourse to become accepted. Previously antagonistic groups have moved to the same side of the issue. Among those speaking up for renewable energy are Tea Partiers, active community members, students, environmentalists, and religious groups. These diverse associations now view solar energy as feasible, urgent, and financially successful.
With so many disparate groups indicating a newfound consensus in support of renewable energy, a final question develops. Why does Georgia Power’s energy plan not include any new solar energy? This is perhaps the trickiest problem in the debate. For decades, Georgia Power and the Public Service Commission have played a central role in electricity provision (the PSC also regulates other major industries), but in a time of technological innovation and with the possibility of a disaggregated form of energy production, is Georgia Power’s monopoly becoming obsolete? Further, is Georgia Power’s failure to incorporate consumer demand institutional inertia or the sign of a failing monopoly trying to protect its market share? Does this make Georgia Power undemocratic? In a faster-paced energy market, where energy generation is no longer limited to outrageously expensive coal burning behemoths, it may no longer be as necessary as it was in the 1970s to keep a tight lid on competition. Surely there is room for startup companies to compete with Georgia Power (perhaps not in coal or nuclear energy, but in solar and wind energies, at least). Further uncertainties surround Southern Company’s extensive lobbying (Georgia Power is its subsidiary), The Center for Responsive Politics reports over $15 million spent in 2012 alone. Perhaps this power should be dispersed to those groups itching to join the market.
As we fire up the AC to keep out the Georgia scorcher, let us consider the emerging political implications of a task previously nonpolitical. Is Georgia Power watching the emergent market establish itself elsewhere in an attempt to protect its market? In using renewable energies, could we save money while simultaneously reducing our carbon footprint? The consensus has developed in favor of solar energy options and Georgia Power must be competitive in the new energy market or risk becoming a disservice to its state.
Solar Offers Opportunity to Grow Georgia Economy
By Representatives Rusty Kidd (I-Milledgeville), Tom Kirby (R-Loganville), Terry Rogers (R-Clarkesville), Buzz Brockway (R-Lawrenceville), Gloria Frazier (D-Hephzibah), and Carol Fullerton (D-Albany)
If you could check a box on your monthly electric bill that could save you extra money, would you?
You may soon have the chance, thanks to a new bill we introduced the last week of the 2013 Legislative Session: the Rural Georgia Economic Recovery and Solar Resource Act of 2014, also known as HB 657.
The bill creates a 100% voluntary program for Georgia Power customers to “sign up for solar,” even those who can’t install solar themselves.
Customers simply choose to use more solar energy, and they will see their rates reduced over time because the sun never sends a bill for fuel.
Times have changed for solar in Georgia. For years, as solar technologies improved and prices fell, we have watched opportunities for solar energy grow in our state. Today, affordable home-grown solar is ready for harvest.
Solar energy is an abundant natural resource we can no longer afford to ignore. The untapped energy that falls on Georgia every year in the form of sunlight is monetarily equivalent to over 3.1 billion barrels of oil. And Georgia has the fifth-highest potential of any state in the country to produce solar energy for direct use and third-best for selling to neighboring states. Unfortunately, we still rank only 38th nationwide in solar installations. Georgia can do better. And with this bill, we will.
Instead of waiting for Georgia Power to decide when and where to add new solar to our energy mix, we think it’s time to let Georgians decide for themselves. Our bill gives you a choice to use solar energy produced by a new statewide community solar provider, who will deliver solar energy to Georgia Power that would get credited to your bill. The solar provider will have to keep prices low to earn your business, but customers will reap the benefits from the money sunlight saves over time while other fuel energy prices continue to rise.
HB 657 provides new options for all Georgians without taking away any existing rights. Everyone will have the same rights and opportunities in the solar market that they have now, including homeowners who want their own rooftop solar system or companies who want to install their own solar arrays.
The bill offers new possibilities to bring forward ideas for local solar projects. Regardless of whether a ratepayer is in an apartment, condo or farm with plenty of land for solar arrays, HB 657 ensures all of Georgia’s citizens can share equally in the benefits of Georgia’s abundant solar energy.
Empowering customers to check a box for the kind of power they want to use lets the market decide how much solar we need – not the special interests of an investor-owned utility. All of this is without new government subsidies or mandates. More choice means more competition, more innovation and lower energy rates over time. It also means millions of dollars in investment and much-needed jobs in Georgia’s sun-drenched rural communities.
We look forward to the conversation that we’ll be having in town halls across our state in the near future about the important role solar energy can play in Georgia’s future.
By Ron Bridgeman
A change in state law could allow solar “farms” to bloom in Georgia, bringing new jobs and tax revenue to rural areas.
That is the idea, at least, behind a bill introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives by Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, a week before the legislature adjourned for the year.
Kidd said Tuesday that he expects the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommun-ications Committee will hold hearings on the legislation, maybe “in the next six to eight weeks.”
He said he has talked with Rep. Don Parsons, chairman of the committee, and will do so again in the near future.
Several companies have formed in Georgia to develop electricity from solar power – encouraged by national surveys that rank the state high in potential for solar because of abundant sunshine here.
The Public Service Commission adopted a resolution in November, asking the legislature to consider laws that would promote the development of solar power statewide.
Three of the commissioners – Tim Echols, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Doug Everett – joined Kidd at a news conference March 28 and supported the idea of changes in the law to assist in solar development.
Kidd said the bill “would direct the PSC to work on these projects and so forth with gusto and enthusiasm.”
He added that changes in the law are needed to require Georgia Power to cooperate.
“Georgia Power is going to give lip service, but they really don’t want it, so we’ve basically got to force it down Georgia Power’s throat,” Kidd said.
At least four companies have talked with officials in Putnam County about different plans for generating solar power in the county. One, Brewer Renewable Energy, has proposed an 80-acre solar farm near the intersection of New Phoenix and Old Phoenix roads.
The most ambitious company may be Georgia Solar Utilities, headed by Robert Green of Macon.
That firm had options on land near the Plant Branch facility and proposed an 80 megawatt solar farm on the property.
Green said late in 2012 that the company let the options expire because Georgia Power declined to participate with Georgia Solar.
Green has said the state law should be changed, and his company proposed a solar utility that would have the same authority as Georgia Power to generate power – but only solar power. Under that proposal, Georgia Power would be required to allow use of its transmission lines to carry power from Georgia Solar.
That proposal was rejected by the PSC, and three of the commissioners said it would require a change in state law.
Kidd said Tuesday his legislation would make the changes that Green advocates.
Kidd’s bill would create a structure that would allow Green’s company to sell solar power through Georgia Power and “authorize the Public Service Commission to establish a rural community solar initiative and oversee and manage a responsible expansion of solar energy in this state.”
By Walter C. Jones
ATLANTA – Questions about solar power, conservation and the accounting for closed power plants filled a long day of testimony Wednesday as a panel of Georgia Power Company executives defended their long-term plans before the Public Service Commission.
The commission will vote later this year on sweeping changes to how the giant utility intends to produce electricity in coming decades. The commission requires it to submit integrated-resource plans, or IRPs, every three years, but this one is different because of the proposed shift away from using coal to other energy sources.
“This IRP is filled with the most significant issues in a decade,” said Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald.
Kyle Leach, the company’s director of resource policy and planning, agreed.
“This IRP is the most significant in my memory,” he said.
Because the recent recession erased seven year’s worth of projected energy demand that resulted in excess capacity, the company is asking commission approval to shut down 15 coal-fired generators at various plants throughout Georgia. Some would be converted to natural gas and others would be completely dismantled, and even the soil would be reconditioned for future development.
The commission’s lawyers questioned why plants the company would close with a loss would be accounted for differently from those in which it would have a gain.
Then representatives of a dozen groups – from environmentalists to consumer advocates – took turns grilling the executives about what wasn’t in the plan.
For instance, they asked why more solar wasn’t proposed.
Leach explained that the company is in the midst of administering 210 megawatts of solar power that the commission approved last year. It is signing agreements with 129 providers of small-scale solar power who won a lottery for the first round of contracts, leaving 30 others on a waiting list. It’s also seeking bids from large-scale providers now.
“That is consuming a lot of our time as we speak,” Leach said. “... We’re very interested in seeing how potential bidders will drive prices down (before proposing the use of more solar).”
But McDonald expressed frustration that Georgia Power’s parent, Southern Company, announced a day earlier that it had purchased a large solar operation in California.
“These jobs and these taxes are going to go to California,” he said. “From this commissioner’s standpoint, that’s disappointing.”
The executives were also asked why the company doesn’t offer more generous incentives to customers to convert their lighting, air conditioning and other appliances to energy-efficient upgrades. They explained that they are requesting to expand their existing conservation programs to include commercial customers for the first time.
Also Wednesday, Southern Company announced lower profits for the first three months of the year because of cost overruns for a plant in Mississippi that it is absorbing. Without that extra expense, the company would have shown a profit increase because sales at the utilities it operates in four states are up 8 percent and power usage is 2.3 percent higher compared to the same period last year.
Last November, the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to consider legislation that deploys solar energy statewide thereby lowering utility bills. House Bill 657, introduced March 22, was the legislative answer.
Officially named the Rural Georgia Economic Recovery and Solar Resource Act of 2014, the bill's description says "it is in the public interest to encourage broader participation in the deployment of solar electric generation by residents, businesses and community institutions to achieve economies of scale for solar generation facilities, financing advantages, lower costs, improved reliability and optimized generation capacity."
State Rep. Rusty Kidd co-sponsored the legislation and was commended in a Thursday visit to the capitol by PSC commissioners Tim Echols, Lauren "Bubba" McDonald and Doug Everett. The members cited a new age using a zero-cost fuel source that places downward pressure on energy rates.
Robert Green, CEO of Georgia Solar Utilities (GaSU) and Greenavations Power, laid out financial modeling plans in his PSC petition last fall. He suggested investing Georgia Power's technology and removing its market control.
A method around the Georgia Territorial Rights Act (TRA) of 1973 pushed the idea forward. The TRA gave Georgia Power exclusive rights to serve its customers.
"We found that we could utilize a community solar mechanism, and it didn't violate the Territorial Rights Act. It allowed us to move ahead," Green said.
The energy landscape, as described in the new bill, has a PSC-certified independent community solar provider. Anybody that wants solar energy in the utility mix can volunteer through his or her power bill.
Georgia Power would automatically blend in the solar supplies from community solar. Green sees solar production chewing up other energy forms, while rewarding the customer.
"At the end of each year, all the profits are split up on a pro rata basis amongst all the ratepayers or the electrons are blended back in, and it just hauls rates down for everybody," Green said. "If you don't have to burn something to make electrons, who is going to win that race for the cost of electrons?"
The financial model got its kick-start earlier this month in Dublin.
Greenavations assisted development of a soon to be built 1.1 Megawatt solar PV system spread over Dublin High School. This is the first one in the state utilizing a third party lease model.
Tax revenue bonds front the school's solar array.
Green said people want the open access, and that national attention is swinging as other's await the outcome of HB 657.
"If you compare the financial model that we've put together to all other mechanisms of funding solar in the world today, this one is a far more economical and a higher performing model than any of the others. It moves us to the forefront. As goes Georgia will go the rest of the South," the solar advocate said.
Georgia Power remains unsure of its future role, according to the legislation. The company said it's focused on the Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative (GPASI) already approved by the PSC.
Company spokesman John Kraft said the GPASI offers one of the largest voluntary solar generation resources nationally.
"There are already rules in place about buying back power, so that's why we are trying to understand what this bill is proposing to do," Kraft said. "We were not consulted in the drafting of this bill, so we are also trying to understand what the proposed measure would require, how it would work, and determine risks or benefits for our customers."
The bill opens solar installation competition for companies like Dublin's MAGE Solar. Also, no individual loses the right to solar under its provisions.
Private investors can't come in and start building utility companies. Protecting the power grid is paramount.
"The grid is the biggest machine in the world. You have to take care of it. You don't want investors coming in and taking that money off to stick in their pockets," Green said.
Another aspect of the rural solar bill, according to GaSU, is assisting communities hurt by Georgia Power plant closures.
GaSU pushed for a solar farm adjacent to Plant Harlee Branch last year, but fell short. The proposal included an 80-megawatt project on 2,200 acres adjacent to Georgia Power's coalfired Plant Branch facility.
Putting assets back into these areas offers an interesting dynamic to the tax base.
"That property remains valuable," he said. "You don't want to turn that place into a coal ash pond."
While the bill has bipartisan support, Green and Kidd agree it needs perfecting through committee over the next year. Exactly how the actions work within Georgia Power's system are still up in the air.
Kraft said there are a lot of issues yet to be addressed, and others are making plans for Plant Branch not Georgia Power.
"Plant Branch is still in operation at this time and despite our request to retire the remaining units, we have not made determinations on the future use of the site," Kraft said.
Green believes the state's main utility provider doesn't want a part of the bill, though depending on the 2014 state legislative session, it may have no choice.
"Georgia Power does not want to hear this. I think we've got something strong here, and as long as we can keep people from derailing it, this is going to be a big boon for the state over time," Green said.