Just days after an aspiring utility filed plans to develop 2 gigawatts (GW) of solar in the state, Georgia Power is proposing to triple its use of solar electricity.
The utility, which has thus far shown little if any interest in renewable energy, usually pushes for coal and nuclear. Georgia is regularly ranked among the top 10 states for solar resources (such as available sunlight).
That makes the proposal pretty impressive: it's one of the largest voluntarily-developed solar portfolios by an investor-owned utility in the U.S. Most utilities add solar because they are under mandates from a state Renewable Portfolio Standard.
Under the Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative, Georgia Power is targeting 210 MW of solar by 2015, enough to supply 20,000 households.
The utility doesn't want it build it's own solar plants. It plans to buy the electricity under long-term power purchase agreements with large commercial and utility-scale projects. Just 10 MW will come from smaller residential or business installations that sell power back to the grid.
It currently has 61.5 MW of solar under contract, enough for 7,600 homes.
"We believe the Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative will encourage new opportunities for solar development in our state and catapult us to the forefront of this clean, safe energy technology," says Paul Bowers, CEO.
In commenting on the announcement, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) criticized the small role that distributed generation will play in the plan.
"We are encouraged by the news that Georgia Power has taken a first step towards realizing Georgia's vast potential for solar energy that to date has gone largely untapped," says Rhone Resch, SEIA CEO.
"However, more needs to be done for Georgia to become a true leader in solar and to build a sustainable solar market in the state. Important policy decisions lie ahead. It’s vital that the Georgia Public Service Commission allow both centralized and distributed solar generation to fulfill a larger role in the state’s energy mix. The program announced today offers a very limited program for homeowners and business owners to install solar on their own roofs. Distributed solar must be allowed to grow at a rate higher than 10MW per year in order to create a truly sustainable market and jobs across the state. In addition, the state needs competitive rules and standards for connecting to the grid as well as policies to allow for other solar providers to participate in the market."
Georgia Power is the largest of the four subsidiaries that make up the Southern Co., which last year was named by Green America as the "most irresponsible utility in the US" for its reliance on coal and nuclear power. Its new nuclear plant in the state has already racked up more than $400 million in cost overruns and deplays.
Solar-Only Utility Proposed
The timing of its announcement is especially interesting, coming just days after a startup, Georgia Solar Utilities (GaSU), petitioned the state to be registered as a regulated utility – it would compete with Georgia Power and would concentrate entirely on selling solar-generated electricity.
Its business plan calls for an impressive 2 GW of solar capacity ... by 2016. The first project would be an 80 MW solar farm that would connect to the grid and sell directly to residential and business customers.
GaSU believes it can quickly build large solar plants by taking advantage of the Federal Investment Tax Credit. It would sell electricity to Georgia Power and use some of the profits to buy access to the grid from the utility. It would apply profits directly customers by giving them rebates, lowering the cost of solar electricity for them.
It's not easy to become a utility - it requires both state and federal permission to proceed and gain transmission rights. And it would obviously face strong opposition from Georgia Power and other electricity providers.
In fact, a 1973 law effectively gives Georgia Power a monopoly on utility services.
“There are obstacles, there’s no question there are obstacles, but you have to look at the rewards,” says Georgia Solar president Robert Green. “We don’t know what it’s going to take, but we are prepared to go through legislative action if necessary.”
What about Georgia's Wind Potential?
Although Georgia is also home to significant wind resources, the state has also lagged on that. Its wind capacity exceeds six of the 13 Atlantic states, but it has yet to join the 11-state Atlantic States Offshore Wind Consortium. South Carolina and Florida are the other states holding back.
The consortium is a federal program that's coordinating and streamlining wind development off the Atlantic Coast.
Georgia has more than 60 GW of offshore wind potential, according to a recent National Wildlife Federation report. That's roughly the equivalent of 75 average power plants.
But Georgia says it will wait until the market and technologies are more mature, says Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Georgia Governor Nathan Deal.
"When the markets and the technology advance further, we believe there will be a day when wind energy is a viable option for our state," Robinson told The Savannah Morning News. "Georgia will start using wind energy when the prices are right and the technology is right for the unique nature of our wind energy off the coast.
While it's true that a recent Stanford study shows that offshore wind can power the entire East Coast, researchers favor areas with lower hurricane risk north of Virginia where the risk of hurricanes is lower.
A 2007 report by Southern Company and Georgia Tech concluded that "Coastal Georgia waters include large areas with good wind resources in shallow water that have the potential for wind farm development. Also, much of the coastline includes undeveloped areas with close proximity to potential landfall sites for transmission grid access."
"We're in a great position for offshore wind," Tybee City Council member Paul Wolff told Savannah Morning News. "We just haven't had a governor that's remotely interested. That's the problem."
The state also has 2 GW of onshore wind potential, but doesn't have a single, large wind farm.
Georgia even has a bunch of wind companies, including component manufacturers, ZF Wind Power and INTORQ US, which would be boosted and joined by others if the state exploited its wind potential.