Here Comes the Sun: Georgia’s Solar Future Getting Brighter

By Guest Columnist JOHN SIBLEY, program director of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance and former president of the Georgia Conservancy

Last week, the Georgia Public Service Commission, by unanimous vote, tripled the amount of solar power in Georgia Power’s green energy program. This very positive action enables developers of solar energy to take advantage of federal stimulus incentives that must be claimed in the next several months. The state’s solar industry just got a big booster shot.

The PSC’s action also helps Georgia get ready for pending federal policies. It’s a near certainty that federal legislation will require utilities to sell more renewable energy.
Bills approved by the House and by committee in the Senate would increase sales from sources such as biomass, wind, and solar PV by 10 times or more over 10 to 15 years. Georgia will need a vigorous solar industry that can expand many times over its present capacity.

In this context, what should Georgia expect from solar energy?

If you have followed the conversations about solar energy, you have surely heard this from doubters: “Solar is a neat idea, but it is so expensive that the numbers will never work and we don’t have enough sunshine in Georgia, anyhow.”

The problem with their argument is that the developers of solar energy generation – the ones who want to invest money and create jobs in Georgia – aren’t buying it.

First, let’s look at the question of solar resources. Doubters argue that the hotbeds of the industry, such as Arizona, get more sun than Georgia because our low clouds and humid weather leave us with inferior resources.

It’s true that we have clouds, humidity, and less sunshine than Arizona. But those meteorological facts don’t answer the right question. The critical issue is not how we compare to other states, but how do we make the most of the sunlight we get?

Solar resources in Georgia and Florida are very similar. For example, Augusta gets about the same sunshine as West Palm Beach. A recent study for Florida’s Public Service Commission looked at what that state could do with its solar resource. The size of the resource was measured by how much power could be produced by putting solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on 20 percent of available residential roof area and on 40 percent of commercial.

The conclusion was that the power from those panels would be equivalent to 32 percent of the state’s annual electricity consumption and 59 percent of peak summer demand. When the developers in the solar industry look at Georgia, they don’t see clouds and humidity. They see a very viable solar resource and immense opportunity.

There’s also the question of whether investments in solar energy make financial sense. The PSC has opened a window of opportunity in Georgia. Federal incentives (tax credits, cash payments, depreciation schedules) can cover over 30 percent or more of the cost of installing new solar projects.

Recently enacted tax credits in Georgia, and several pots of stimulus money from Washington that are also available to the state, offer ways to cover another 35 percent or more of solar projects. Georgia is now a state where investments in solar energy can be structured to provide a reasonable return.

Such investments can jump start an industry and create jobs, and Georgia needs jobs. Our jobless rate has now hit the “not since the Great Depression” level.

In fact, investment in clean energy technologies is a growing source of jobs. According to “The Clean Energy Economy,” a 2009 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, jobs in that sector grew 9.1 percent nationwide from 1998 to 2007, compared to general job growth of 3.7 percent.

By 2007, the clean energy sector accounted for 770,000 jobs, compared to 200,000 in biotech. The sector grew even faster in Tennessee (18.2 percent) and North Carolina (15.3 percent) than in Georgia (10.8 percent).

Georgia has good solar resources, attractive incentives, and eager investors. We are begging for jobs. How can we keep the momentum for the solar industry going?

In the AJC on July 19, David Ratcliffe, CEO of Southern Company, commented on the “new economy.” He asked: “Which industries should we target for new job growth? And what policies will attract them?” These are exactly the right questions, and they are on point for Georgia’s solar industry.

The barrier to rapid growth of this industry is not lack of sunshine or of willing investors. What’s missing are effective policies that will attract the investors who are waiting for the invitation. Our rules on energy were designed for an earlier era. As the expanded program at Georgia Power runs its course, Georgia statutes and regulations will still need work to be ready for the era of renewable energy standards.

The Pew study points out that North Carolina and New Jersey, among other states, have developed policies that are more supportive of the clean energy economy than Georgia’s. Tennessee is highlighted as one of three states with “large and fast growing clean energy economies.” Tennessee, North Carolina, and New Jersey are among many states that are pushing hard to expand their solar industries.

The time is right to build on the boost from the PSC and work on policies that will let us catch up.

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