Solar bill offers new business model

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.