Solar Wars 

The battle over just how much the sun should power Georgia has begun

FUTURE’S BRIGHT: Georgia is fifth in the nation when it comes to potential for solar energy, boosters say.

Joeff Davis

FUTURE’S BRIGHT: Georgia is fifth in the nation when it comes to potential for solar energy, boosters say.

Dawn may be breaking for big solar in Georgia, but not without a storm.

Last week, the Georgia Public Service Commission, the all-Republican elected utility regulator, did the improbable: It approved its own plan to force Georgia Power to more than triple the company's flagship solar program.

The move followed weeks of debate and jousting between environmentalists, conservative groups backed by special-interest money, the tea party, and a solar start-up. Interestingly, the state's largest utility, which serves about 2.4 million customers, didn't object to adding 525 megawatts of solar power to its portfolio by 2016.

"I see it as part of the planning process we go through every three years," says Kevin Greene, a Troutman Sanders attorney who represents Georgia Power. He added that the expansion shouldn't make power bills higher.

The move was heralded as a bold step. But even after the growth, very little Georgia electricity will come from solar. Most of the rest comes from a mix of coal, natural gas, and nuclear. For comparison, the solar panels atop the Atlantic Station IKEA alone produce 1 megawatt of electricity.

But there are some people who are gearing up to fight for more solar — and the usual suspects stand ready to push back.

To misquote an old movie, solar energy is legal in Georgia. But it's not 100 percent legal. It's legal to make it, it's legal to use it, but unless you're the proprietor of a utility company, according to Georgia Power, it's illegal to sell it.

Georgia law, the utility claims, grants it the sole right to supply electrons in its territory, which includes much of metro Atlanta. Its executives, lawyers, and army of lobbyists under the Gold Dome cite the Territorial Electric Service Act of 1973, which divvies the state among Georgia Power and a host of electric membership corporations and other small-ish players.

Georgia Power has pointed to that law in cease-and-desist letters to the likes of North Georgia's Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, which in 2010 wanted to strike a deal with a solar installation company to install panels on its roof and pay for the power over time.

That, Georgia Power claimed, amounted to the school buying power from someone beside itself — and was an illegal transaction, the utility says.

The argument in letters like that "chills" the market for solar power in Georgia, says John Sibley, a senior policy fellow at Southface, an Atlanta-based sustainable building nonprofit and self-described solar advocate. Sibley thinks the 1973 law, which was drafted long before the dawn of Big Solar, has nothing to do with regulating sun power and that a Nacoochee-type deal is legal.

Mark Bell agrees. He's president of Empower Energy Technology, an Atlanta-based engineering firm that focuses on installing energy-saving technologies for businesses. And he's board chairman at the Georgia Solar Energy Association, a trade group that counts solar professionals and companies from electricians to lawyers.

"Third-party PPAs are legal instruments in the state of Georgia," he says. (A third-party PPA is a fancy word for what the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School wanted to do: essentially have a company lease space on rooftops, install solar, and sell the electricity to the building inhabitants or even the greater power grid.)

But Sibley and Bell's interpretation has not been proven in court. Neither has Georgia Power's. In the meantime, the cease-and-desist letters are doing their work. Georgia Power guards the Territorial Act (and its turf) jealously.

That uncertainty, says Sibley, is one of the biggest problems in the regulatory environment for solar in Georgia.

Until either a court or the Legislature clears the haze, the outlook is foggy for people who are trying to calculate if they can save money — or make money — by generating power from the sun.

Last year, a new company called Georgia Solar Utilities burst onto Georgia's growing clean energy scene. The Atlanta-based firm asked the PSC for permission to build a big, utility-scale solar farm, but got turned down based on the Territorial Act. So Georgia Solar Utilities walked across the street to the Gold Dome and asked state lawmakers to help them in their efforts by penning legislation. The result: House Bill 657.

As the bill is now written, it would set up one statewide, PSC-regulated solar "bank" that would secure the financing to source as much solar power as Georgia demands. It would measure that demand by asking people on their power bills if they wanted the clean energy. Georgia Power would be obligated to buy based on customer demand, subject to PSC oversight and price controls.

It's what's "politically possible," says Robert Green, a serial utility entrepreneur and CEO of Georgia Solar Utilities.

The bill skirts the Territorial Act, but Georgia Power is still not impressed and stands ready to fight. State regulations, Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft says, already provide a process for setting up new power generation when it's needed and that the result is cheap, reliable energy — be it coal, nuclear, solar, or some other fuel. Georgia Power has previously frowned upon solar, citing either the state's geography or cost. But Kraft emphasized the utility would support cost-effective solar regulated wisely.

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