Never mind the reason, Republicans are shifting on solar power

An aerial view of a solar panel array under construction in Terrell County, Ga., taken in February. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



An aerial view of a solar panel array under construction in Terrell County, Ga., taken in February. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In politics, simply doing the right thing is often more important than doing the right thing for all the right reasons.

Last Tuesday, all five Republican members of the state Public Service Commission required Georgia's most powerful utility to give serious attention to the amount of energy it generates from alternative sources.

The 2,210 megawatts of new solar capacity is double what Georgia Power had pitched in January when it unveiled its three-year plan for the future, as required by state law. On top of the solar increase is an additional mandate for 50 megawatts of biomass power, typically generated by burning wood or converted wood pellets.

Georgia Power is famous for getting what it wants in and around the state Capitol. Witness the Public Service Commission’s 2017 vote to continue construction on two new nuclear power reactors at Plant Vogtle, despite delays, cost overruns, and PSC staff reports that the project had become uneconomical.

Being the party of business requires a tight alliance, ruling Republicans have argued in the past – as Democrats did before them. But last Tuesday, the interests of Georgia Power and the Georgia GOP diverged – in a way that makes for both good policy and good politics.

There were individual considerations, to be sure. Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, the current PSC chairman, has been the primary force behind the push for more solar energy. His six-year term expires in 2020, and he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll stand for re-election.

If he does, McDonald is likely to speak of solar energy in a way that will help explain that much tougher vote on Plant Vogtle. ”Nuclear energy is the best friend solar energy can have,” he told me after Tuesday’s vote. “It’s there 24/7. It’s there when solar is not producing.”

Then there’s Jason Shaw of Lakeland, a former state House member appointed this year to fill the unexpired term of retiring PSC member Doug Everett. Shaw will be on the 2020 ballot, too. Remember that new biomass requirement? Shaw’s PSC district includes Albany, home to one of the largest biomass facilities in the state.

But that is small-picture stuff. Georgia Republicans have two serious demographic challenges in 2020. A heated political climate, fueled by both Donald Trump and a renewed anti-abortion push, has cost them support among younger and college-educated voters.

Then there’s rural Georgia, which has become the essential ingredient in GOP victories – but is starved of jobs and so is facing a depopulation crisis. Alternative energy – solar power in particular – addresses both problems.

Like McDonald, PSC vice-chairman Tim Echols has been a strong advocate for solar energy on the PSC. But he's also a great believer in energy and environmental issues as a way to reach out to a new generation of voters. He's got his own 8 a.m. Saturday radio show on the topic (WGAU 1340AM in Athens).

“The polls indicate that people want more solar power on the grid,” Echols said. “This allows folks in Atlanta to be happy about the state’s energy transition, but it provides financial benefits for some of the most difficult areas in our state, in middle and south Georgia.”

That last part is important. The PSC solar mandates are heavy on utility-grade arrays when it comes to solar, and lighter on roof-top generation. There’s a reason for that.

Judy Sherling doesn’t live in Atlanta, but fits a certain profile. ”I’m an older, college-educated white female conservative – not necessarily Republican or Democrat. Just conservative. So I probably skew to that demographic,” she told me. “But at the same time, I’m organic, I believe we need to take care of our Earth.”

More importantly, Sherling is executive director of the Development Authority of Jeffersonville - Twiggs County. A 200-megawatt, 2,000-acre field of solar panels is currently the largest infrastructure project under construction in Twiggs County, just south and east of Macon. It’s expected to be finished by the end of the year. The electricity generated will be sold to Georgia Power.

Already, the privately funded project has created more than 800 temporary construction, electrical and grading jobs. This solar field alone has doubled the Twiggs County tax digest, while posing no pressure on the local environment, roads, schools or public safety.

“They just come in and they take land that’s been in conservation use – and so it’s taxed very low. They turn it into a higher taxable land,” Sherling said. Which means more money for spending on schools and other government services.

Other rural communities are discovering the same benefits of mass solar fields. But it’s not a silver bullet for what’s ailing rural Georgia. I asked McDonald, the PSC chairman, what Gov. Brian Kemp and GOP leaders in the Legislature might do to move the solar ball further down the field.

His answer surprised me. “Leave us alone,” McDonald said.

He wasn’t being rude, but explained that it is possible to generate more energy than power lines can handle. “The amount of solar depends on the ability to transmit it. It’s not how much you can have. You can have plenty of it,” he said. “California has done so much in solar, at ratepayer’s expense, that they pay Arizona to take some of their power. They’ve overdone it.”

Perhaps the strangest thing about this push for solar is Republican argument behind it. It is entirely based on economics. It’s cheap, so let’s do it.

“Climate change” remains a forbidden phrase. The U.S. Navy may believe in it, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech alike may be filled with scientists who are sure that it’s real, and progressing faster than we thought.

But the topic is still poison in Republican circles – something to dodge, if not deny.

“If you’re an authority on climate change, and you look at what the proponents of climate change are asking for, solar falls right into their arms,” McDonald said. “But I don’t get out in left field on climate change. The science of it is above my pay grade.”

Echols was more pointed. “I think climate change has been weaponized by liberals across our country, and it’s usually a trap for Republicans,” he said. “While I believe that temperatures have increased for the last 30 years, I really think you have to view climate change in a much larger context – looking at over several thousand years.”

Like I said. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with people doing the right thing. Never mind the reason.