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Is solar power the answer for Georgia?

Posted: June 29, 2013 - 11:02pm

ATLANTA —­­­ A growing number of Georgians support solar energy, but regulators considering the state’s largest utility’s long-range plans are considering whether it’s needed.

Ordinary people viewing it from a common-sense standpoint see benefits in solar power.

For many, the attraction is environmental. There’s no wasted fuel or emissions, and the only impact is in the manufacturing and shipping of the photovoltaic panels.

For others, it’s economic. Sun-shine, after all, is free. And the precipitous drop in costs for the panels makes the total package more affordable.

But the Public Service Com-mission is charged with using more than its gut reaction. That’s why it has held many days of testimony, including one marathon session that lasted until 9:30 p.m.

Commissioner Chuck Eaton says solar has become viable now that panel prices have dropped. Commissioner Doug Everett sees it as a needed alternative should federal regulations halt the hydraulic fracturing technique that’s dropped the price of natural gas. He notes that environmental regulations have made coal-fired power generation much less economical.

Commissioner Tim Echols gets excited by the possibilities of new technology, and Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald embraces the potential for creating jobs and local economic opportunities.

Of the five commissioners, Stan Wise exhibits the most reservations. Wise, the longest-serving of the all-Republican panel, raised a basic question – or rather a series of them – during a hearing last week.

If Georgia Power is going to have 25 percent more generating capacity than it needs after shutting down 15 coal-fired generators across the state and completing construction of two reactors at Plant Vogtle, can its customers afford to add more solar?

“If you were aware if there was a move by this commission to force the company to buy power that it clearly did not need and there was going to be costs associated with it, would you be able to quantify it?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, I believe we’d be able to do that,” said Kyle Leach, Georgia Power’s director of resource planning.

If it closes a power plant, the company will continue to pay taxes on the property, and its customers will continue to pay the cost of the equipment that was still in its useful life.

That is in addition to the cost of developing the new solar generating capability.

Because the sun doesn’t shine at night or on cloudy days, the company also has to have enough generation for those times, and that has a cost.

A high school in Dublin, Ga., is being used as an example of solar economics by both sides of the debate. A local government authority leases solar panels, funded by bonds to be repaid from a sales tax.

The annual bond payments of $300,000 for 25 years total $7.5 million, but school officials consider that they are saving the $100,000 annual power bill because the sales tax doesn’t come out of their coffers.

Spending $3 to save $1 looks like a bargain to solar advocates but not to Wise or Georgia Power. And that’s not counting the costs to maintain and replace equipment that breaks or wears out over that quarter-century of financing.

Republicans tired of being labeled old-fashioned and anti-environment are looking for ways to embrace solar power and hope it might bring a few younger voters to them – pointing to the Dublin school as inspiration. Legislation introduced the last days of this year’s General Assembly session that would give one company a solar monopoly to supply Georgia Power customers quickly drew bipartisan support.

Before the Legislature considers that bill, the commission will have to vote on Georgia Power’s long-range plan. McDonald has already announced he intends to make a motion to amend the plan so that the company must double its solar capacity.

“This commission will have before it in this (plan-review) process some significant solar activities that we’ll be discussing as we move down the road on this process,” he said.

The question is how many other commissioners will agree with McDonald.

In the end, being sympathetic to solar power or intrigued by its possible advantages may not be the same as voting to require millions of customers – also known as voters – to pay for it.

(Walter Jones has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. Follow him on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com and (404) 589-8424.)

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