Solar power in Georgia draws energy conference discussion, debate

Georgia, not Florida, is the “Sunshine State,” at least with clean energy industry insiders.

The ongoing fracas between Georgia Power and solar energy startup Georgia Solar Utilities was a surface-of-the-sun hot topic on the final day of the Savannah International Clean Energy Conference.

 Georgia Solar Utilities wants to build a large solar farm within the state and has petitioned the Georgia Public Service Commission to sell the electricity directly to customers rather than to Georgia Power or other providers within Georgia.

Georgia Power has challenged Georgia Solar’s request. It argues allowing the Macon-based company to operate as a utility would violate Georgia Power’s standing as a regulated monopoly and would “create barriers to future solar development.”

Attendees at the Savannah International Clean Energy Conference pressed utility company representatives, including Chris Hobson of Georgia Power’s parent company, Southern Company, on the solar issue during sessions Tuesday. Solar is a growing part of the energy-production portfolio, those utility officials countered, and will continue to be so. 

Georgia Power recently proposed to acquire 210 megawatts of additional solar capacity over a three-year period, which would give the utility 271 megawatts of solar capacity, enough to power 117,000 homes.

While no direct mention to Georgia Solar Utilities was made, the notion of Georgia as home to a large solar farm was a recurring theme throughout the day. Officials with the German-American Chamber of Commerce pointed to the success of solar energy production in Germany as proof that states like Georgia could benefit from solar initiatives.

Germany’s solar farms produced 22 gigawatts of power on a recent weekend, equivalent to the output of 20 nuclear plants, and have the capacity to produce 28 gigawatts of electricity, or enough to power 12.6 million homes. Solar facilities provide approximately 3 percent of Germany’s power. 

Projections are solar will provide 25 percent of the nation’s power by 2050.

“And Germany is farther north than Georgia,” said Dennis McGinn, a retired naval rear admiral and the president of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE). “In terms of latitude, it’s on the same line as Canada. Georgia gets a lot more sun.”

Twice as much sun in terms of generating kilowatt hours, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The solar discussion tracked with a larger conference theme – the need for a “level playing field” for renewable energy initiatives. A government subsidy for wind energy, known as a production tax credit, is to expire at the end of the year. Meanwhile, subsidies for oil and gas, with a value of between $5 billion and $25 billion a year, will continue.

Leveling the playing field, if even for a period as brief of five years, would benefit the renewable energy innovators because of the rapid decline in the cost of renewables. As costs decline, renewables become more competitive with fossil fuels.

“We’re about to have a debate over taxes in this country, and the question is what measuring stick are we going to have for these subsidies,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program, an advocacy group. “Are we going to continue to have subsidies for technology that is over 100 years old? Are we going to have term-limited subsidies for renewable energy?

“There is a lot at stake.”

Increasing subsidies for renewable energy or eliminating those breaks for fossil fuels aren’t the only field-leveling tools available. Other tax-based incentives are possible, including credits for public-private partnerships.

Another idea, albeit a controversial one, is a carbon tax. Just as cigarette taxes have gradually reduced the number of smokers in the country, a fossil fuel tax would push energy companies to be innovative in formulating their product, ACORE’s McGinn said.

“With a carbon tax, it becomes an issue where, ‘Can we use it? Sure. But there are costs,’” McGinn said. “A carbon tax would start to shift or accelerate the economic shift toward a clean-energy economy.”