Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Senate Bill 401 was filed this week, seeking to expand the use of renewable energy in the state of Georgia. The bills’ reading is somewhat technical, but essentially removes caps on the amount of power that can be produced by solar panels on individual homes and businesses and then sold back to the local power generator.
Essentially, customers with solar panels meter not only power coming into their house from the existing grid, but also the amount of power returned to the grid. The generating company – Georgia Power in most of the state – is required to buy surplus power back based on their state granted regulated monopoly status. Currently, projects are limited in size to 10 Kw for residential customers and 100 Kw for business customers. SB 401 removes these caps.
More intricate details of the bill provide for private ownership of these systems, as opposed to current law which requires the owner of the property to also own the attached grids. This will allow for manufacturers of solar grids or interested third parties to enter into financing or lease agreements which pay for the systems long term out of cost savings for the customer. By allowing for these arrangements, many customers can access these systems with no money up front, as opposed to the high initial capital costs which would take years to recover.
Not surprisingly, Georgia Power is less than thrilled with the addition of private generation of power attached to their grid. They, after all, are entitled to an 11 percent annual return on any investments they make in an effort to keep the lights on in Georgia. They also have a permanent presence at the Gold Dome, with an army of lobbyists prepared to cater to each legislator’s personal needs. This is to ensure when pressed about Georgia Power’s objections, the legislator is sure to reply that the company is a “Good Corporate Citizen”. That’s capitol speak for “They’re going to get whatever they ask for. Please excuse me while I go attend a NASCAR event at their expense.”
Georgia Power’s grid generation capacity is already under strain as the company is expected to remove three coal powered plants over the next couple of years, as upgrading them to meet new clean air standards has been deemed cost prohibitive. Meanwhile, Plant Votgle’s two additional nuclear reactors are expected to gain approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday, but will not be online until 2016 at the earliest.
In protesting the rules that are responsible for the coal plant closures, Georgia Power stated that it is likely to have to buy additional capacity from producers out of state. With other power producers having to close generating plants for the same reason however, the availability of power and more importantly, the price that will be paid for it, is in question.
SB 401 aims to take commercial and government buildings with large flat roofs and enable them to create additional energy during peak times, when Georgia Power and other producers would be most likely to source additional power from out of state. Peak use tends to occur on hot summer days, precisely the time when solar power would be the most beneficial.
In addition, there is a local economic development benefit to expanding the use of solar. MAGE solar in Dublin and Sunivia in Norcross manufacture panels which would supply these projects.
As for the consumer, expanding the use of solar with legal third party lease arrangements would be a small acknowledgment that the bill used to finance the reactors at plant Votgle rewarded Georgia power with an advance $1 Billion in profit, paid for by small businesses and residential customers. SB 401 reminds everyone that with Georgia Power’s monopoly status comes a responsibility to look out for smaller customers, as well as helps them meet their own goals to help Georgia reduce air quality problems.
While the bill is one that is sound on its merit, that does not always mean it will gain acceptance at the capitol. The first sign of trouble is that the bill has been assigned not to the Regulated Industries Committee, which has jurisdiction over power generation, but to the Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Capitol insiders predict it will take effort to get the committee to move the bill, but a little sunlight on the issue may make the legislature warm up to solar.