PSC votes boost solar power prospects

State utility regulators approved Georgia Power’s plan to sell significantly more solar power to customers, but they also endorsed the idea of letting independent solar companies get into the game as well.

A sharply divided Public Service Commission on Tuesday agreed 3-2 to support efforts to allow solar power sales by new entrants to the public. That would require changing a state law that gives utilities monopolies in designated areas.

It’s unclear if the idea will generate much support in the state legislature, however.

A change in current law could open the door for more solar companies in Georgia, but it also would threaten the bottom line of Georgia Power, the state’s largest regulated utility.

Georgia Power has its own plan to boost solar sales by buying more from other providers and reselling to customers. Under that plan — approved by the PSC 5-0 — Georgia Power will buy 45 megawatts a year for two years from solar-equipped residences or businesses, triple the amount originally planned. It also plans to buy 60 megawatts a year for two years from solar farms.

One megawatt can power a department store or 450 homes.

Georgia Power’s plan was condensed from three years to two under a recommendation from PSC member Chuck Eaton.

The resolution to effectively endorse competition from independents was introduced by PSC member Bubba McDonald - originally to champion a newly formed solar company that wants to sell direct to homes and businesses.

The two commissioners who opposed the resolution said the PSC should not endorse the agenda of one private company.

That startup company, Georgia Solar Utilities, had asked the PSC for permission to compete directly with Georgia Power in selling solar power. The PSC on Tuesday agreed it did not have the authority to consider the company’s request because of current state law, then took up McDonald’s resolution to support efforts to change that law.

In general, efforts by lawmakers to expand the use of solar in Georgia have been fought off by Georgia Power and the state’s electric cooperatives.

“Any conversations involving this proposal have yet to reach the speaker’s office. As I recall, this legislation failed to make it out of the senate last year,” said Marshall Guest, spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

He was referring to a failed attempt last session to let private solar companies lease solar panels to homeowners and businesses and then sell the electricity at a fixed rate, as some states do.

Robert Green, Georgia Solar Utilities Chief Executive, said he’s spoken to lawmakers about his company’s plan to sell to the public, but did not name them. Green knows he faces stiff opposition but said he is ready to fight to open the marketplace.

“I mean, you’re either going to be prepared for it, or you might as well go home,” Green told reporters after the PSC meeting.

Georgia Power did not respond directly to Green’s comments. While opposing new independent competitors, the utility has touted its own plan to expand solar sales by buying power from other providers and reselling it to customers.

Georgia and most of the Southeast has been slow to add renewable fuels. The region’s electric rates are relatively low, making wind and solar uneconomical until recently. Lawmakers and regulators have feared mandating more solar could drive up customer bills.

Environmental regulations have pushed coal out of favor, however, and it’s unclear how long natural gas prices will remain low.

Commissioner Doug Everett, who voted for McDonald’s resolution, said those factors have changed his mind.

“Just where are we going to get the [electrical] generation to replace the coal industry?” he said. “We’ve got to be proactive, we can’t be reactive.”