By Julie Hairston, Communications Director, Georgia Solar Energy Association
The past year has yielded a watershed passage for solar development in Georgia, with the state’s solar portfolio poised to expand vastly beyond its 2012 level in just three years.
Georgia also has spawned an unprecedented alliance between environmentalists and Tea Party activists to press state leaders for updated solar policies. Formally christened the “Green Tea Coalition,” the new organization has pledged to open the Georgia market to solar as a cost-effective energy choice for consumers. Its efforts are drawing attention from media nationwide and inspiring similar movements in other areas of the country.
The momentum began in November 2012 when the Georgia Public Service Commission’s approved what now is known as the Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative (ASI). Georgia Power requested the PSC’s authorization to reallocate 210 MW of power in its long-range resource plan from biomass to solar. As approved, the ASI authorized Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility and a subsidiary of Southern Company, to contract for 90 MW of distributed generation from small and medium-sized projects and 120 MW of utility-scale solar development over the years 2013, 2014 and 2015.
It is the largest voluntary solar development initiative of any utility in the nation.
The first 45 MW of distributed generation projects were awarded to qualified applicants in early 2013 through a lottery selection process. Almost 1,000 applications were submitted. The next 45 MW of distributed generation will be awarded in 2014, with any remaining capacity to be developed in 2015.
Just as the award of the first 45 MW of distributed generation concluded, Georgia Power began a required update of its long-range resources plan through the PSC. During that process, PSC Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald proposed that the new plan include an additional 525 MW of solar. McDonald’s proposal set off an avalanche of public outcry in favor of his request, most notably supported by Debbie Dooley, coordinator of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. To the Tea Party advocates, the barriers in Georgia law that prevent solar from market-based competition counter the bedrock American principles of private property rights, consumer choice and free-market economics.
In July, environmentalists and consumer advocates joined Dooley and her Tea Party supporters in a demonstration outside the Georgia Capitol the day the PSC voted. McDonald’s proposal was adopted and approved. The 525 MW includes 100 MW of distributed generation.
While solar advocates of every perspective – business, consumer, environmental, philosophical – celebrated this giant step forward, they continue to express concern about what happens when these finite allocations are filled. Despite the expansion this represents for Georgia’s solar portfolio, it does little to accomplish the state’s solar development potential, which has been widely recognized as among the best untapped prospects of the 50 states. And policy barriers to development of a robust, perpetual solar market in Georgia remain unchanged.
Currently, the PSC is deliberating a Georgia Power proposal that would impose a tariff on solar consumers beginning in 2014. The tariff would add about $22 a month to utility bills for customers with solar installations. The effect of this tariff could be devastating to the nascent surge in solar development through the ASI by raising project costs to prohibitive levels.
Public protest has erupted statewide urging the PSC to reject the tariff, noting that it discriminates unfairly by singling out solar users alone for the charge. In addition, an internal report produced by the PSC staff pointed out that no concrete data collection on the impact of solar deployment to Georgia’s electric grid was used to determine the charges proposed.
Georgia’s growing community of solar advocates also is looking ahead to the policy deliberations of the General Assembly, where a proposal to authorize third-party PPAs was defeated in 2012. A variety of solar-friendly proposals are pending from the 2013 session and remain viable until adjournment of the 2014 session. With a growing, broad-based, statewide network of solar enthusiasts now actively engaged in prodding state leaders to remove the policy barriers to solar development, Georgia appears poised at last to take its place among the nation’s leaders in solar energy production.