smart, innovative, forward thinking

July 13, 2013

By Greg Bluestein and Kristi E. Swartz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State utility regulators voted 3-2 to force Georgia Power to amp up the solar energy it generates, a move that could impact the power bills of millions of residents. Whether it means higher or lower rates, though, remains hotly contested.

The Public Service Commission’s decision to require the powerful utility to add 525 megawatts of solar energy to its network was celebrated by environmentalists, tea party activists and solar companies who rallied to turn the vote into one of themost heated issues before regulators in decades.

It faced stiff opposition from other conservative groups and utility executives, who said Georgia Power already generates more than enough energy for its customers. Commissioner Stan Wise, the most outspoken opponent, called the decision “unconscionable.” He also warned it could drive up rates, but Georgia Power executives suggested that was uncertain.

The expansion, backed by Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, doesn’t call for an eye-popping increase in solar energy, at least not when compared with the coal-fired, natural gas and nuclear plants that generate most of Georgia’s electricity. The expansion amounts to roughly one-fifth of the capacity of the two reactors now being built at Plant Vogtle.

But it sends a powerful signal that the commission is embracing renewable energy even if it means upsetting Georgia Power, which usually gets what it wants. And it emboldens the coalition of solar supporters preparing to challenge Georgia Power over other high-stakes issues in the coming months, such as a proposed 6 percent rate hike.

Supporters added some safeguards to the solar expansion during Thursday’s meeting. They voted to require that any solar projects must be reviewed by an independent monitor and approved by regulators. And they said the projects must not raise customer bills in order to be accepted.

Regulators and utilities are increasingly seeking out alternatives as new federal rules aimed at reducing pollution and combating global warming have pushed plants that burn coal and oil out of favor. Yet Georgia and the rest of the Southeast lag behind the rest of the nation in using renewable energy, partly because lawmakers in other regions have required the use of solar, wind and biomass.

What’s still uncertain is the bottom line to consumers. The utility has said expanding to more solar could save or cost ratepayers as much as $9 million either way, largely depending on the volatility of the price of other fuels, such as natural gas, and how much it pays solar providers.

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