Debate in Georgia: How much solar is enough?


While industry advocates are shouting the benefits of solar generation from the rooftops nationwide in the United States, some electric utilities are refusing to listen. One of them, Atlanta-based Georgia Power, is now facing a statewide revolt led by an impassioned solar entrepreneur and his supporters.

It's understandable why Georgia Power – or any electric utility, for that matter – wouldn't be a proponent of distributed solar generation. When a ratepayer installs solar on his rooftop, he doesn't need as much power from the grid during peak daytime hours — and he can even sell energy back to the utility. That reduces the amount of money that the customer can be billed, and provides the utility with less justification for proposing new plants or upgrading infrastructure.

Georgia Power spokesperson John Kraft explained the company's approach to rooftop solar generation. "Georgia Power is responsible for providing low-cost reliable service 24/7," he commented. "We are encouraged by the amount of distributed generation in the state; however, the company still must invest in its infrastructure to support peak customer demand on cloudy days and at night. Programs like our Large Scale Solar (LSS) and Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative (GPASI) — where 100% of the energy comes back to Georgia Power — provide opportunities for customers to install solar while still allowing the company to plan most efficiently for solar generating resources as part of its overall fleet."

And at the moment, what the utility says goes. Georgia Power retains nearly exclusive rights under the state's Territorial Act to sell whatever mix of fossil fuel and renewable power it chooses to generate and distribute to its 2.4 million ratepayers. Along with five other states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma — Georgia effectively prevents third-party energy providers, including solar firms, from directly selling electricity to those already served by a traditional power company.

Therefore, unless the Public Service Commission (PSC) intervenes in a crucial vote on July 11, Georgia Power will not yield to current protests and increase its solar output beyond the 270 MW already promised in the draft of its new Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the road map for providing electricity to its customers.

A formidable opponent

In advance of that vote, the utility has found a powerful opponent in Macon-based Georgia Solar Utilities, a company founded in June 2012 by Robert Green. The former utility contractor and Georgia native sees solar development as "a natural fit" for the fifth-most insolated state in the nation.

He decided to make a move free up solar development in Georgia, he told pv magazine, because, "It was obvious to me that there was a problem in the state because of a lack of will to install. Georgia Power did not really want to move into solar. We opted to fight them to create a cure."

Green originally applied to the Georgia PSC last September to force Georgia Power to add at least 500 MW in solar generating capacity to its IRP — starting with an 80 MW utility scale solar power plant near Milledgeville that he wanted to develop. However, in the current political environment, he believes that challenging the Territorial Act would be unproductive. What's more, Green told pv magazine that he had come to believe that the measure "protects some very important aspects of electrical generation in this state," adding, "What we're doing is not allowing those laws to be torn apart."

Therefore, Green is now actively promoting House Bill 657 ("Rural Georgia Economic Recovery and Solar Resource Act of 2014"), which — if passed in some form by the state legislature next fall — would enable the PSC to certify an independent solar provider to finance, build, and operate solar-energy generating facilities; and then, to sell the electricity it produces to Georgia Power.

His supporters include a diverse group – from solar advocates to the conservative wing of the G.O.P., the Tea Party Patriots.

The Georgia Solar Energy Association (GSEA) told pv magazine it is maintaining a neutral stance on the possible implementation of House Bill 657 but has criticized the limitations of solar provision in the utility's IRP, stating: "[We are] concerned about the prospect of a long-range energy plan for Georgia that does not include any additional solar capacity. … Based largely on the experience of other states, we firmly believe that development of solar energy resources in Georgia will create many local, living-wage jobs.

"Market-based solutions would also increase the energy efficiency of homeowners and businesses statewide by giving them the flexibility to install solar at their own facilities.

"The [PSC] can take many market-based steps to support the adoption of solar by private companies and individuals outside of any mandates on Georgia Power. We hope the commissioners will take these things into consideration as they work toward a final plan."

As for the Tea Party, Green told pv magazine, "They are ideally suited to advance this movement. They do not believe in too much government interference or regulation."

Enough is enough

Meanwhile, in an early round of negotiations on Georgia Power's IRP, the PSC agreed on June 25 to avoid controversy and leave aside the issue of whether the utility should use more solar power — except to say that, if the commissioners decide to require more solar, it should come from the lowest bidder.

That doesn't seem to bode well for Green's campaign — but, even if the vote goes in favor of Georgia Power, there is always the possibility that House Bill 657 will pass before year-end 2013.

In addition, Georgia Power spokesperson Kraft told pv magazine that nothing is ever set in stone. "Just as contracts for wind and other renewable generation sources have been added in 2013 that were not foreseen in the last Integrated Resource Plan, there are provisions to pursue such opportunities when they provide extraordinary value to our customers," Kraft stated, adding, "In fact, all significant additions around solar at Georgia Power have happened outside of the IRP process; however, these additions still reflect the resource needs of the company. As we proceed, we will continue to work with the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) and solar industry stakeholders to add cost- effective renewables, as we have over the past several years."

As of now, the biggest change in the IRP — which is revised and voted on every three years — is the utility's intention to retire 16 coal- and oil-fired power-generating units at six power plants. The revision has been driven by Georgia Power’s efforts to comply with new federal air pollution rules called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the utility told Georgia Public Broadcasting.

"Taking into account the impact of MATS, as well as other pending or potential regulations, the company's analysis of its generating capacity has led to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of customers to retire approximately 2,100 MW of generating resources," said Kyle Leach, Georgia Power's director of Resource Policy and Planning.

Georgia Power also is asking to switch six coal units to natural gas to take advantage of low prices. Why deploy gas instead of solar? According to Kraft, "Coal, nuclear, and to some extent, gas-fueled plants, consistently produce power around the clock throughout the year. At this phase, solar does not operate this way, so it cannot simply offset this type of ‘base-load' generation. However, Georgia Power will continue to consider ways to integrate cost-effective renewable resources into its generation mix where additional generation is needed and the decision makes economic sense for customers."

An exception to the rule

Finally, in the midst of all of this politicking, Green already has a back-door project in the works. At Dublin High School, which serves a rural town about 55 miles (85.5 kilometers) southwest of Macon, local government authority and bonds from the Dublin-Laurens Development Authority are being used to deploy a $3.5 million (€2.7 million), 1 MW solar project.

Since bonds are paying for the project and not the school itself, the initiative is walking a fine legal line. After the government pays for the solar equipment, the school will lease it for 25 years, with the option to buy when the lease ends.

The school states that by installing the arrangement of 4,000 roof and ground-mounted solar panels — manufactured by Ravensburg, Germany-based MAGE Solar, which has a plant in Georgia — it eventually will reduce its energy costs by roughly 40%. In fact, six to eight years from now, the solar project may yield cheaper energy than the grid, as the utility's prices continue to rise.

While this is a relatively minor project, it could be the start of a trend. Green said that he has discussed the Dublin deal with government officials from larger communities — and bigger electricity users. "We have other people talking to us. We’re putting out a plan that can enact permanent and abiding change," Green told pv magazine.

Georgia Power reviewed the Dublin deal but it never challenged the project. However, the utility's spokesperson, Kraft, told pv magazine, "While we have no indication that the Dublin High School project violated any laws, we do not feel that the project provides the best overall value for the customers involved. Georgia Power is committed to providing value to our customers as well as assistance with energy-related issues, including the addition of solar energy and equipment to a home or business. We encourage customers to contact us if they are considering buying or leasing solar equipment."

Stay tuned as the results of the PSC vote come in next week.

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