Thu., July 11, 2013 5:50pm (EDT)

Regulators To Ga. Power: More Solar
By Joshua Stewart
Updated: 12 months ago

ATLANTA  —  
The state Public Service Commission voted Thursday to approve Georgia Power’s 20-year energy plan – including an additional 525 megawatts of solar power. Along with the utility’s existing solar program, that will bring almost 800 megawatts of solar online by 2016. (Photo Courtesy of jetsandzeppelins via Flickr.)
The state Public Service Commission voted Thursday to approve Georgia Power’s 20-year energy plan – including an additional 525 megawatts of solar power. Along with the utility’s existing solar program, that will bring almost 800 megawatts of solar online by 2016. (Photo Courtesy of jetsandzeppelins via Flickr.)
Georgia Power will have to add 525 MW of solar energy in the next few years. Georgia utility regulators added the requirement Thursday as they approved the company’s 20-year energy plan.

The utility had not asked to add more solar, but now it will have to – a total of nearly 800 MW by 2016.

Commissioner Doug Everett asked Georgia Power’s Kevin Greene if the company approved of including more solar resources to its energy mix. Greene said the company didn’t have an opinion.

“We believe we can [implement the decision] and we believe we can do so in the best interests of the citizens of Georgia,” Greene said. “It was not our proposal, but I don’t view it as my place to approve or disapprove of a particular motion. We’ll follow the commission’s direction.”

Greene said more solar shouldn’t push power rates up. But Commissioner Stan Wise disagreed. He said the company already has twice as much extra capacity – known as reserve margin – as it needs to provide reliable power.

“My colleagues do not know whether solar prices are dropping or static or climbing. We’re in such a rush to do this, you’re acting before you even know what bids come in under the current [Advanced Solar Initiative] program,” Wise said. “Knowing that the utility is long on power, you forced them to take this solar [and] you don’t know the cost of the cheaper power that Georgia Power must take offline to accommodate this resource.”

Wise spoke after commissioners had already voted on adding the solar requirement. He tried to speak beforehand, but other commissioners forced a vote. That left Wise saying he was muzzled.

“Smart energy purchases are better left to the experts with the long view in mind, not the social engineers. But that’s what we’re engaging in today: social engineering. You are engaged in Washington-style, feel-good, energy policy. You’re not making this decision based on economics or any rational public-policy argument,” Wise said.

Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald proposed the extra solar. He said lower costs make now the time to act.

“I’ve got grandchildren that, 20 years from now, I hope that they can look back as we are graded on what we have done and say, ‘You know what, my grandfather was on the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2013 and because of some issues that he took grasp of, we’ve got good, reliable, clean energy that we can depend on in the state of Georgia.”

In the end, Wise was the lone “no” vote on the 20-year plan, which otherwise didn’t change much from the company’s original proposal.

Advocates called the added solar a good first step.

“We ended up with a good start,” said Robert Green, president of Georgia Solar Utilities, which has asked the commission and lawmakers for a monopoly to sell solar power in Georgia. “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.”

“This really is an historic day for Georgia,” said Liz Coyle, deputy director of Georgia Watch. She cited the now-approved retirement of 16 coal- and oil-fired power units along with the increased solar-energy requirements. But she said she still hoped for more.

“We feel strongly that the four units at Plant Gaston should be retired,” she said. “Commissioner Wise made the point over and over again – and everybody here’s agreed – there’s excess capacity. We think when the excess reserve margins are that high and ratepayers are paying for that excess...and there’s pretty clear evidence that it’s not an economically good decision to keep those units open by converting them to gas, we think they should be closed.”

Georgia Power asked to retire the units because of new federal air-pollution rules that make them too expensive to retrofit.