Georgia Power execs questioned on coal, solar energy


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.