Georgia Power to buy more solar

Georgia Power plans to substantially boost the amount of solar power it distributes to customers, citing falling costs that have made the source more competitive.

The utility said Wednesday it will buy more than 10 times the amount of solar electricity it currently gets from solar farms and rooftop array by 2017. If added today, the additional electricity would catapult the state to No. 4 in use of solar power, according to the most recent data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Other states will also likely be boosting solar power use at the same time, however, and even with the addition solar would comprise only about 2 percent of Georgia Power’s output.

“We see this as a good first step toward increasing Georgia’s infrastructure,” said Jessica Moore, executive director of the Georgia Solar Energy Association.

Georgia Power disclosed the plan in a proposal Wednesday to the state Public Service Commission, which must approve. Customer bills will not be affected, the utility said.

The plan calls for Georgia Power to buy an additional 210 megawatts from solar sources. One megawatt can power about 450 homes or one SuperTarget store. The utility generates 16,000 megawatts in total, with coal, natural gas and nuclear the dominant generation sources.

Georgia Power, the state and the Southeast have been criticized by alternative energy advocates for lackluster use of renewables such as solar and wind power.

The utility’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., currently gets 2 percent of its fuel from all renewable sources, including hydroelectricity.

Georgia Power and Southern have vigorously fought policies to mandate levels of renewable electricity use. In Georgia, the company also lobbied against a bill that would let outside companies lease solar panels and then sell the electricity to that homeowner or business at a fixed rate.

Georgia Power will not build or operate the solar farms or rooftop panels to supply the sun-power boost. Instead the company will buy most of the power from large “utility-scale” solar farms. It will buy a smaller amount from homes and businesses with solar systems. The plan calls for lining up suppliers over the next couple years and ramping up purchases from 2015 through 2017.

Dropping solar costs are the main driver, company executives said, while pressure from customers, the solar industry and some utility regulators also figured in.

“Solar now is a lot more economic than it used to be,” said Greg Roberts, Georgia Power’s vice president of pricing and planning. “And we’ve really done a lot of talking and listening to our customers and developers and are working with the [PSC].

The average cost of a rooftop solar array has dropped more than 46 percent since 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The cost of a solar panel system for a typical home has fallen to $15,000 from $40,000. Decreased technology and manufacturing costs, simpler designs and rising overseas competition are among the reasons.

A bill in the state legislature last winter would have allowed companies to install, own and maintain solar systems on homes and businesses. Customers would sign a long-term contract to pay for the electricity generated by those solar panels.

Georgia Power and the state’s municipal and cooperative utilities argued that such companies would be illegally operating as a utility.

Roberts said Georgia Power’s proposal is not a move to pre-empt any repeat effort this winter.

Some PSC members have pushed Georgia Power to boost alternative sources. Commissioner Chuck Eaton, running for a second term, said he has changed his stance on solar now that the cost has decreased.

“Solar has now entered the realm of competitive energy,” he said. “There have been folks that have been critical that we haven’t gotten in earlier, but really what they are saying is, ‘You should have paid three times for the solar what you are paying today.’”

The Washington-based Solar Energy Industry Association said the move would “create one of the largest voluntarily-developed solar portfolios by an investor-owned utility in the U.S.” But the group said “more needs to be done for Georgia to become a true leader in solar and to build a sustainable solar market in the state.”

Large-scale solar projects mean more business for companies such as Alpharetta-based United Renewable Energy. The company is an engineering, procurement and construction contractor for commercial and industrial solar projects.

“The scale of what they are proposing is high,” said Bill Silva, president and chief executive officer. “To have clarity in the market in terms of the value renewable energy brings, then we’ll be able to have our customers move forward on larger projects.”

Kim Kooles, a policy analyst with the Raleigh-based North Carolina Solar Center and the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, noted that Georgia will remain among states without a mandated percentage of power from renewables. The state also should loosen its restrictions on how homeowners and businesses install and use solar panels, she said.

“If it’s not doing those … things, I wouldn’t say it’s ’cutting edge,’” Kooles said. “I say it’s great for Georgia, but it’s not a game changer.”

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