Change in utility’s solar energy plans prompts ideological pirouette
By Tom Baxter
How inconvenient, for the power company to change its tune on solar energy in the middle of an election year.
As recently as last week, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers was predicting to the Athens Banner-Herald that renewable energy will still be only a “sliver,” maybe two to four percent, of total electrical generation, a half century from now. Georgia Power and its parent, the Southern Co., have long resisted any government efforts to mandate renewable energy efforts, and stoutly opposed any efforts to establish solar energy operations even distantly in competition with their monopoly.
But sometimes it’s necessary to play the competition’s game. Only two days after a Macon-based startup, Georgia Solar Utilities Inc., (GaSU) submitted a petition to the Public Service Commission last month to sell power from a projected 80-megawatt solar facility to be located near Milledgeville, Georgia Power announced its own plan to acquire 210 megawatts of solar power over the next three years.
That represented a tripling of the electrical provider’s previous commitment to solar. By 2017, it would push solar production in the state to 10 times what it is now, although it is not much now. The power would come from small operators like those Georgia Power previously spurned, but not GaSU, which Georgia Power executives suggested should cut back to a tenth of its currently planned output and sell to them.
Because this competitive business decision involved a considerable policy shift for the utility’s political allies, it was preceded by an op-ed piece/press release, “A Conservative Argument for Solar Power,” by Public Service Commissioner Chuck Eaton, wherein we learn that he’s been working with Georgia Power on its new solar “program.”
“Solar energy has become a polarizing ideological debate, with many on the left treating it as a religious crusade, while many of us on the right believe it’s a boondoggle designed to favor Obama supporters,” Eaton writes.
But solar energy isn’t “inherently liberal,” the commissioner continues. Although criticized by “the left” for dragging its feet on solar development, the PSC has actually saved Georgians millions of dollars over states which implemented it when it was more expensive.
“By being cautious and responsible, instead of following liberal special interest groups, the PSC can now consider adding solar to our power portfolios at much lower costs to Georgia families,” he writes.
It would be hard to find a more bald-faced argument for complacency than this. Does anyone seriously believe, given the railroads, the telegraph system, broadband coverage and so many other obvious examples over time, that states actually profit in the long run from being slow to embrace new technologies? By this logic, William Hartsfield should be taken off his pedestal. Didn’t it take years for the airport to become the economic engine of the region?
As thin as Eaton’s ideological argument may be — substitute “charter schools” for “solar energy” and see what you get — it does signal a major shift in fortunes for alternative energy production.
Notwithstanding Bowers’ “sliver” comment, Georgia Power’s petition to acquire more solar-generated power is only part of a broader corporate move to acquire a bigger position in renewable energy. What we may be seeing is the emergence of Big Solar, and its even more desirable sibling, Big Wind.
The Southern Company has partnered with Ted Turner – how’s that for an ideological pretzel? – to work on renewable projects, and last week announced the acquisition of its third major solar project, a 30 megawatt plant in Nevada.
Alabama Power, Georgia Power’s sister, has won PSC approval in that state to buy 404 megawatts of power generated on wind farms in Oklahoma and Kansas. According to news reports about the sale, that amounts to three percent of the electricity used by Alabama Power’s customers, meaning that renewable energy will have as great a share of overall power consumption in that state in a couple of years as Bowers says Georgia will have 50 years from now.
Obviously, the many-tentacled utility has decided that the costs of producing renewable energy has come down to a point where it can’t be ignored. But forget liberal or conservative, in the sense that any politicians might throw those terms around. What the power company really wants are renewable energy sources that it can understand, which fit the model of a highly capitalized monopoly utility like the one it operates. Big wind farms out on the High Plains, producing power delivered over a complicated electrical grid, fit that model. Upstart competitors like GaSU and small-time tinkerers up on their rooftops trying to take a bite directly out of their profits, don’t.
You can expect the political articulation of that principle in the not too distant future.