Odd as it may seem, the south-facing roofs of this city’s high school, home of the Fighting Irish, have become the focal point of a pitched battle now under way on the state Capitol campus in faraway Atlanta.
Millions of dollars, if not billions, are at stake — along with Georgia Power’s business model. Never mind your own power bill.
Sometime next month, the Dublin city school system will flip the switch on an array of 4,000 solar panels on the roofs and grounds of Dublin High School. Enough to power the entire high school plus an adjacent administration building.
The $3.5 million, 1.08-megawatt system is expected to reduce the school district’s power bill by at least $100,000 the first year alone — enough to eliminate one furlough day for all teachers or hire two new ones.
The project is financed by a local option sales tax. Given the rising price of electricity, by 2019 the savings on utility payments will cover the annual $300,000 cost of the 25-year lease, said Chuck Ledbetter, Dublin’s school superintendent.
“Our bottom line is the bottom line,” he said.
If Ledbetter’s calculations pay off, and we’ll all know soon enough, you can expect dozens of public school systems — especially those below I-20, where empty land and sunlight are plentiful — to follow suit.
At about the same time that this 2,800-student system activates its solar system, the five-member Public Service Commission is expected to approve a 20-year plan for Georgia Power, the state’s largest and most politically powerful utility.
As currently proposed, Georgia Power’s future designs include no provision for increased use of solar energy — beyond a 210-megawatt allocation already under way.
But one PSC member, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, served notice this week that he’ll demand that Georgia Power add 525 megawatts of new solar-generated capacity over the next three years — 100 megawatts from smaller projects such as Dublin High School and 425 megawatts from solar arrays of large-acre, utility scale.
The result, opponents say, would be something close to chaos. In testimony this week, utility executives said Georgia Power currently has 25 percent to 30 percent more generating capacity than it needs — and has two new nuclear power plants in the works. Ratepayers are already picking up a portion of the costs associated with the new nuclear plants.
“The commission has never, ever forced [Georgia Power] to accept generating assets that it says it does not need. That would be a tremendous policy shift,” PSC member Stan Wise said. And it would increase the overall cost of electricity for Georgia Power customers, he said.
And so eyes have turned to this haven for conservatism near I-16. The campaign message from the local district attorney, which still hangs from a downtown building: “Prayer is not a crime.”
But the town has developed an open mind when it comes to solar power since 2010, when MAGE Solar USA, a producer of solar panels, came to town.
MAGE produced the panels that will be used at the local high school. A line of solar-powered streetlights now illuminate the entrance to the Dublin Police Department. Griffin Lovett, the publisher of the Dublin Courier-Journal, drives a Chevy Volt and powers his white-columned family home with solar panels hidden on the back side.
But this is not merely a case of small-town boosterism. Dublin’s private partner in its solar venture is Greenavations Power, whose CEO is Robert Green. Green is also the founder of Georgia Solar Utilities, a firm that has become part of an effort at the Capitol to break Georgia Power’s grip on solar energy in the state.
Legislation to this effect was introduced this spring by state Rep. Rusty Kidd, an independent from Milledgeville.
And so Dublin High School has come in for some extra scrutiny.
Green was responsible for developing the project’s financial plan. In its rating of bonds for the solar project, Moody’s noted the “complex deal structure.” In fact, it took 15 months and six law firms to figure out a way around a state law granting Georgia Power, and electric membership corporations, exclusive territories in which they alone can sell electricity.
Greenavations Power will own the solar panels in Dublin. But because the school system will lease them, the situation is akin to a homeowner powering up a diesel generator in the backyard, Green said.
Wise has raised questions about the legality of the financing package. “It is not my intention here to question local government decisions,” Wise wrote in an email. “This is an example of what will play out all over the state if the guy who put this deal together, and others like him, [are] given free rein by the Legislature to prey on unsuspecting customers with unscrupulous financials.”
Green said Wise’s comments are intended to intimidate. “This is very serious and intended to scare away other schools,” he said in response. The real problem, the entrepreneur said, are the legal barriers erected by the state to discourage solar power.
On Wednesday, under questioning during the last day of a two-day battery of hearings before the PSC, Georgia Power executives conceded that they didn’t think the Dublin High School project violates the Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act.
But this debate is far from over. Power never changes hands easily. Whether figuratively or literally.