Rise of corporate solar behind 950 MW of new capacity in US state

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From pv magazine USA.

Although the state of Georgia is a solar leader in the southeastern USA, and utility Georgia Power can claim credit for deploying PV after a push by state regulators, its plan to add another 1 GW of renewable energy – likely solar – outlined in its integrated resource plan (IRP) may well owe more to tech giants such as Facebook.

Some 950 MW of the new generation will come through the utility’s Customer Renewable Supply Procurement program, under which Georgia Power will issue competitive solicitations for renewable energy facilities of at least 3 MWac capacity, to come online in two tranches by 2022 and 2024. As past auctions have indicated, utility-scale PV will generally beat other resources, so it’s safe to say most or all of the new capacity will be solar.

The utility, a subsidiary of Southern Company, is rounding off the 1 GW commitment with a 50 MW plan for distributed generation – less than in its previous programs.

Moving to a winter peak?

Buried in the weeds of the plan – whose main document alone runs to 161 pages – are details that point to possible motivations for the new 1 GW. First, the new solar is not to meet peak demand. While Georgia Power is still a summer-peaking utility, it notes also “recent operational experiences and forecasted conditions reflect a significant shift in reliability risk from the summer season to the winter season”.

That could be the result of the solar Georgia Power is already committed to. The company has around 1.6 GW of renewable energy online, most of it PV, and expects another 1.5 GW by the end of 2021 – all of which will be solar.

As seen in New England, even relatively small amounts of solar can alter net demand patterns and it is possible the company’s PV power is mitigating its summer peak.

Corporate sustainability and jobs

If Georgia Power does expect to shave its summer peaks with solar, there is less of an economic motivation to deploy renewables, and the utility presumably isn’t pursuing the energy transition for its own sake.

Instead, the reasons for the new procurement can be gleaned from a description of the program on page 52 of the company’s IRP filing. Georgia Power notes the program will be available for subscription by new and existing customers, and adds: “By offering existing large customers the opportunity to subscribe to a portfolio of up to 500 MW of new renewable resources, the company seeks to satisfy the increasing demand from customers with specific goals to support renewable energy. Additionally, up to 450 MW of new renewable resources will be available for subscription from customer load additions greater than 25 MW, providing Georgia Power with an additional economic development incentive to attract large companies who desire to support renewable energy when locating to Georgia.”

It is probably not accidental that Facebook is building a data center in the state, and the proposed IRP clearly caters to the renewable energy goals of corporate clients as well as attempting to attract new corporate energy consumers.

Mixed reactions from advocates

Renewable energy advocates offered a range of responses to the new IRP plan. Environmental group the Sierra Club issued a statement congratulating Georgia Power for scheduling the retirement of another 1 GW of coal-fired generation, and stated it “looks forward to being part of the process to keep moving” in the direction of 100% renewable energy.

However, like other Southern Company utilities Georgia Power shows no inclination of moving to entirely renewable generation. Under the IRP, renewables would make up a modest 18% of generation by 2024. While that is more than other utilities in the region, it is a low bar for progress and a rate of change well below the level of deep decarbonization the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary by 2030.

That may be in part due to parent company Southern’s preference for nuclear. Georgia Power is one of the only investor-owned utilities in the U.S. to continue to push for the construction of new nuclear reactors.

In a statement responding to the IRP, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy blasted Georgia Power for a lack of ambition.

Georgia Power’s new resource plan would have been considered bold nine years ago, but this plan is behind the times,” noted a statement from the organization. “While we commend Georgia Power for retiring approximately 1,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity at plants Hammond and McIntosh, the utility is only acknowledging the inevitable with the retirement of these two minimally-operating coal plants.”

Both organizations should get a chance to weigh in further, as the process of finalizing Georgia Power’s 2019 IRP is expected to take months.