Project to boost solar power in state

When it comes to electricity from the sun, Georgia has largely remained in the dark.

But a proposal is in the works to boost the amount of sun-powered electricity, and it comes from two unlikely sources: Georgia Power and one of the state utility regulators.

The utility has been reluctant to add solar to the grid, saying it is too pricey and would raise customer bills. The Public Service Commission has shied away from making Georgia Power get more electricity from renewable sources for the same reason.

But a behind-the-scenes effort by Georgia Public Service Commissioner Chuck Eaton and Georgia Power has led to a project that will give Georgians more opportunities to buy solar power. Few details were available, but the project will be “significantly” larger than the 50 megawatts of solar electricity Georgia Power must have on the grid by 2015, Eaton said. One megawatt of solar can provide electricity for one large department store, such as a Super Target.

“I’ve been working with Georgia Power over the last couple of months to get more solar in the marketplace and do it in a manner that does not put upward pressure on rates,” Eaton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The price of solar has come down dramatically.”

Georgia Power said it has been “working with the PSC for the past several months to find new ways to responsibly add more solar to our mix without causing rates to go up for customers.

“We have been and will continue to look at ways to incorporate cost-effective resources into our generation portfolio,” the company said.

The efforts are a sea change for the state, which, along with the Southeast, lags in getting electricity from renewable fuels. Georgia Power’s parent, Atlanta-based Southern Co., gets 2 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including hydroelectricity. California, in contrast, gets 47 percent, Florida 4 percent and North Carolina 2 percent, according to the most recent data, for 2011, from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Georgia Power devised a plan to get 50 megawatts of its power from solar energy last year after state utility regulator Bubba McDonald asked the company to do so. But the utility, along with state electric cooperatives, successfully lobbied in the state legislature against allowing consumers to lease solar panels from a private company with the help of bank financing.

Unlike traditional power plants that produce several hundred or thousand megawatts of electricity that travels over long power lines, solar systems typically are much smaller and are built on or near a home or business. The proposed project for Georgia Power would likely follow that model, with the utility buying solar electricity from other companies through competitive bidding, Eaton said.

“It would be from all of the solar companies that were out there,” Eaton said.

One company, Georgia Solar Utilities, is eager to sell solar energy in the state and has proposed building an 80MW solar farm in Putnam County. Company executives presented the plan to the PSC at its energy committee meeting Thursday morning. By law, the company is forbidden to compete with Georgia Power or any other utility in the state.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.