Investing in our solar system

Phyllis Cuttino directs the Clean Energy Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Throughout Georgia’s history, the state’s sunny climate has drawn settlers and self-starters, but never before has the sun itself driven a revolution like the one happening now: a solar power boom that’s creating thousands of jobs and reducing Georgians’ reliance on conventional energy.

In 2013, Georgia boasted the fastest-growing solar energy market in the U.S., adding 91 megawatts of capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The state has enough solar capacity to power 8,405 homes. From 2012 to 2013, solar industry jobs in Georgia more than tripled, rising from 800 to 2,600 — the largest percentage increase of any state.

That growth is expected to continue, thanks to several factors: strong clean energy research programs at state institutions such as Georgia Tech, funded in part by U.S. Department of Energy grants; public-private partnerships; falling costs for renewables and strong leadership from the Georgia Public Service Commission.

GPSC commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, after watching the rise of solar in Arizona, California, and elsewhere, persuaded Georgia Power to include solar energy in the utility’s 2013 integrated resource plan. “I told them, ‘We can do this as partners and get it done, or as adversaries and everyone — including ratepayers — will lose,’ ” McDonald says.

Today, Georgia’s renewable energy industry shows yet again that what’s good for the environment can also be very good for the economy. Georgia’s clean energy sector attracted $477 million in private investment in 2013, the eighth-highest figure in the nation. Of that, $326 million went to the solar sector, a 1,025 percent increase over 2012. The state is now home to more than 140 solar companies.

Georgia Power is also working with the U.S. Army Energy Initiatives Task Force to build, own and operate solar power systems at three Army bases: Fort Stewart, Fort Benning and Fort Gordon. By 2016, each base will house 30 megawatts of installed solar capacity that together will produce 18 percent of the energy used on the bases and will move the Army 9 percent closer to its goal of deploying 1 gigawatt of renewable energy by 2025.

As solar power storage and transmission improve, Georgia will enjoy another economic opportunity: A study by Arizona State University ranked it third among states that would benefit the most from selling solar power to other states.

To maintain and build on this momentum, Georgia’s growing solar industry needs the federal government to extend the investment tax credit, which allows residential and commercial customers to take a federal tax deduction of 30 percent of the cost of a solar system; that credit is set to expire at the end of this year. Industry leaders say the credit has helped fuel solar installation growth of more than 1,600 percent nationally since 2006. That growth, in turn, has helped to drive the cost of solar down 80 percent since 2009.

This federal tax policy is a complement to the state’s energy policies, which include a 2013 public service commission directive calling for Georgia Power to add 525 megawatts of solar power by 2016; a buy-back program that allows customers to purchase electricity from the utility’s solar portfolio; interconnection guidelines that enable residential customers who have installed clean energy systems to link to the main grid; and “net metering,” which allows residential customers to generate electricity from their systems to offset bills from the power company.

The evidence is clear: Georgia is establishing itself as a leader in clean, reliable, affordable, job-creating solar energy. Extending the federal investment tax credit will help ensure that even more Georgians benefit from harnessing the power of this plentiful resource.

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