Ga. Power agrees to bigger solar and wind boost

Georgia Power is making a big move into solar power and other renewable energy — about three times bigger than it originally planned — under a deal state regulators are expected to approve Thursday.

If the Public Service Commission’s five-member board approves a recent compromise on Georgia Power’s long-term plan, the utility will add as much as 1,600 megawatts of new renewable energy capacity, or roughly enough “green” capacity to power about 264,000 homes. Most of the increase would be over six years.

“It’s going to be a sizable increase in renewable energy,” said former PSC commissioner Bobby Baker, who now represents the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group.

Baker said Georgia Power currently has about 1,000 megawatts of solar, wind or other renewable power projects online or under development, representing roughly 5 percent of the utility’s overall capacity.

The proposed additions could boost that share to roughly 12 percent. That comes on top of more than 1,000 megawatts of power expected to come from an expansion of the Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta by 2020.

The Atlanta utility had originally proposed 525 megawatts of solar, wind and other alternative energy to be added over three years in its so-called Integrated Resources Plan. The plan is a 20-year blueprint for the utility’s power generation projects, conservation programs, power plant retirements and other goals that is reviewed every three years by state regulators.

The PSC’s board is voting on Thursday on a recent “stipulation” agreement resolving most of the disputes between the utility, regulators, environmental groups and others over the long-term plan. The PSC’s board could amend some pieces before approving it, but it probably won’t toss the agreement aside.

Whatever the PSC board approves could eventually affect Georgians in many ways. The long-term plan will indirectly affect electricity bills, pollution levels, and whether Georgia Power eventually begins building a second nuclear plant in the state.

Nuclear study

One issue still up in the air is whether the utility commission will approve Georgia Power’s request to approve a study — at a cost at least $175 million — to evaluate a site south of Columbus to potentially build a new nuclear plant.

The state regulator’s staff and environmental groups pressed for the higher green energy target. The state regulator wants more renewable energy partly because solar and wind power projects can now produce cheaper energy than traditional sources such as coal and natural gas-fired plants.

“We’re adding it because it’s cheaper than running existing capacity,” said Tom Bond, the PSC’s director of utilities. “It’s like if you have two cars and one gets 20 miles to the gallon and the other gets 50. It’s cheaper to drive your car that gets 50 miles per gallon.”

Although the long-term plan doesn’t directly affect customers’ rates, Bond said the lower-cost renewable energy will help keep rates down.

Calls for more

During hearings over several months, the regulators’s experts, environmental groups and others had questioned the utility’s planned pace of new solar- and wind-power additions as a slowdown from previous years.

“We’re adding more (renewable) energy but it’s added over a longer period,” Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said. “We definitely think it’s a good stipulated agreement,” he said, that will broaden the utility’s sources of power and save money for customers.

There are big differences between the power-generating capacity of traditional and renewable energy power plants. Most nuclear and gas-fired plants run full-time, so 1 megawatt from those plants supplies about 1,000 homes. Most renewable energy plants only produce when the wind blows or the sun shines, so 1 megawatt from those plants supplies homes only part of the day, or in effect significantly fewer homes.

But solar and wind-powered installations also are much cheaper and quicker to build and run. Georgia Power expects contracts to supply 1,050 megawatts of green energy to cost about $2 billion.

The Vogtle nuclear expansion, on the other hand, is over three years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget.

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