The Atlanta-based Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) has approved by a vote of 3-2 a motion by commissioner Lauren McDonald Jr., to compel utility Georgia Power to include an additional 525 MW of solar generation in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the road map for providing electricity to its customers.
Up to the eleventh hour Georgia Power had dragged its heels on distributed solar generation which decreases the amount of grid electricity needed by ratepayers who deploy the systems, reducing utility receipts saying it would not bump up its solar output beyond the 270 MW promised in the draft IRP.
However, the utility 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 said he saw solar as "a natural fit" for the fifth-most insolated state in the nation. He saw a huge business opportunity and decided to 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."
The PSC hearing and vote on Thursday crowned weeks of heated debate about the potential of solar in Georgia. People on both sides of the issue packed the standing-room-only hearing at the PSC.
"Not a mandate; an expansion"
The amended motion requires 260 MW be brought online by 2015 and 265 MW by 2016. The new solar generation will comprise 100 MW of distributed generation and 425 MW of utility scale solar, and will require competitive bidding.
"I believe this is the right step to take if we are to encourage the development and use of solar energy," said commissioner McDonald. "A mandate is [when] a company has to guarantee they will generate certain levels of renewable energy at any price by a certain date," he said. "This is an extension of a program that is already in place."
The commission modified the solar motion by adopting two proposals put forward by commissioner Stan Wise requiring the utility to use an independent evaluator in the bid process and prohibit accepting bids that exceed Georgia Power’s levelized avoided cost for the term of PPAs.
Commissioner Doug Everett repeatedly stated he would not accept any plan that put upward pressure on rates. With assurance from both commission staff and Georgia Power this plan will not raise rates because bids must be below Georgia Power’s avoided cost, he voted to adopt the stipulation.
Commissioner Tim Echols, who supported the solar motion, said: "Commissioner McDonald’s motion adding 525 MW of solar to our 20-year energy plan is a hedge against more coal regulation and natural gas price volatility. When the President finishes his war on coal, he’ll come after fracking, and gas prices will surely go up. We have to be ready."
Other motions and provisions
The commission adopted two other motions by commissioner Echols. One allows Georgia Power to develop a proposed small wind demonstration pilot project that compares several different turbine technologies. The other requires Georgia Power to file within 30 days its project plan for a low-income demand-side management (DSM) program for the direct installation of eligible energy efficiency measures for about 25,000 homes.
Other provisions of the stipulated agreement, most requested by Georgia Power and approved in earlier negotiations, included: closing and decertifying 16 coal-fired electric generation units; converting two coal-fired units to burn natural gas; bringing 13 coal-fired generation units into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS); and changing the close date of Plant Branch Unit 1 from December 31, 2013 to coincide with the closing of Plant Branch Units 3 and 4, as approved in the agreement.
"Georgia has to look to the future," said commission chairman Chuck Eaton, "we are making decisions that affect millions of Georgians, ensuring we have reliable electric service so we do not experience brownouts in extreme weather conditions and promoting economic growth and development."
According to a report on Georgia Public Broadcasting, advocates called the added solar a good first step.
‘A good start’
"We ended up with a good start," said Green adding, "This state has the ability to do a lot more than this. We have a great situation in that we have not made any mistakes in putting solar out at a high price. The state can incorporate many times this amount. But you had to start somewhere."
"Georgia’s Public Service Commission is providing true leadership and protecting consumers," said Colleen Kiernan, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club. "Solar is the best bet against rising electric rates. The fuel will always be free, and you’ll never have to spend millions on environmental controls."
The Georgia Solar Energy Association (GSEA) also welcomed the commission’s decision.
"We believe this vote shows the PSC, as Georgia’s utility regulator of record, is leading us to a better, more robust and economically valuable future with Georgia’s solar potential reflected in its energy portfolio and we thank them for their foresight," said GSEA chairman Mark Bell.
"There are additional policy updates that we believe can do even more to enhance our solar development capability. GSEA stands ready to work with our policymakers to craft these effective laws and regulations allowing our state to share in the solar wealth being created nationwide."