Georgia’s Public Service Commission faces a divide over one of its most contentious issues in years, and rival tea party factions courted by both sides have injected an extra dose of politics into the typically wonkish debate.
The split is over an unlikely issue: A vote set for Thursday on requiring Georgia Power, the state’s dominant utility, to amp up the amount of solar energy produced in its long-term plans. While the vote remains up in the air, both sides agree it sends a signal that the utility may have to more aggressively pursue alternative energy.
The debate comes at a crucial moment for Georgia Power, one of the most powerful forces in the statehouse, and the outcome will surely affect energy bills that could already rise 6 percent next year. It centers on a proposal by Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald to require the utility to roughly double the amount of solar energy generated in its 20-year plan.
He has the backing of several tea party groups who made a name for themselves fighting the health care overhaul and the transportation sales tax but now are increasingly latching on to social and consumer issues. The Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, an influential grass-roots group, sees McDonald’s plan as a crucial way to diversify Georgia’s energy portfolio.
“We need to look into as many types of energy sources as humanly possible,” said Julianne Thompson, a co-founder of the group. “Not only to save money for consumers but also so we’re not reliant on one or two energy sources for electricity.”
But other tea party groups fear that raising the requirements could lead to higher energy costs for ratepayers with little access to another competitor. Virginia Galloway of Americans for Prosperity’s Georgia chapter urged her group, which she put at 50,000 members, to rally against the proposal or risk skyrocketing energy bills and hampering the state’s economy.
“We’re already deploying some solar power a little bit at a time, so what’s the mad rush to expand this quickly?” she said. “Governor Deal has recruited a lot of companies to Georgia, and from our point of view, why mess that up? Because if companies are going to move here, you better believe they are looking at power bills.”
Georgia Power is building the nation’s first two new nuclear reactors in a generation and plans to close 15 coal- and oil-fired units as it relies more on natural gas, which is at low prices because of abundant supply. But it’s coming under increasing pressure from shareholders, as well as tea party activists, to add more solar power and renewable energy.
The company’s initial 20-year energy plan does not include adding any renewable energy, angering environmental and consumer groups as well as some members of the PSC. McDonald’s plan would require the utility to add 525 megawatts of energy, or roughly a fifth of the capacity of the two reactors now being built at Plant Vogtle.
Georgia Power executives don’t want to be forced to add solar or any other type of fuel because projections show it already has enough energy capacity. Critics also say solar panels traditionally work better in deserts and arid plains, where there is more direct sunlight, as opposed to Georgia, where cloud cover is a fact of life.
Opponents are coalescing behind Commissioner Stan Wise, a Republican like the rest of the commission’s five members, who said the utility already generates about 25 percent more power than it uses. Adding solar or any other type of electricity to the grid will only push rates skyward, he said.
“We don’t need any more power, regardless of what the source is,” Wise said at a recent meeting. “Whether it’s solar, natural gas, hydro — regardless of the price.”
McDonald can probably count at least one other “yes” vote for solar power, while the other two members are in flux. Commissioner Tim Echols fears the White House will seek more restrictions on a technique used to extract natural gas called fracking that will inevitably force prices of the fuel to rise, and he sees McDonald’s plan as a hedge.
“We have to be ready, so adding a small amount of solar may be the right direction for us to go with solar panel prices near rock bottom.”
So why is the solar debate heating up now? Analysts and utility regulators often point to two sticking points.
Tighter federal restrictions on toxic emissions from coal-burning plants give supporters the fiscal pretext to push for renewable energy alternatives. And solar industry trade groups say better technology has helped prices plummet at least 46 percent since 2010.
“Things changed at light speed for solar,” said Robert Green, the founder of Georgia Solar Utilities, as he pardoned himself for the pun. “Solar is viable now because the technology has evolved. And this vote could swing open the door to more solar and level the playing field.”
Divided as they may be, the tea party groups’ interest has given the debate newfound traction. Leaders from opposite sides of the divide say the groups are slowly expanding their focus beyond tax increases to advocate on pocketbook issues such as monthly utility bills.
“More often than not, we’re about taxes and spending,” said Galloway, whose group opposes the solar expansion. “But since this is a highly regulated utility and it has such an overarching effect, we feel like the potential for harm is there and we need to speak up.”
It won’t end this week. The same grass-roots groups are closely monitoring a proposal by state Rep. Rusty Kidd that would create a new solar utility independent of Georgia Power. House Bill 657 could reach a hearing in September.
“Tea party folks are just average people and this is important to them,” said Kidd, an independent from Milledgeville whose district includes a coal-fired plant set to be closed next year. “Solar is an untapped resource. You can study it to death, but it’s something we need to be more aggressive about.”
There’s also another reason why the solar industry might resonate with the movement, Echols said.
“Tea party members seem like perfect candidates to go off the grid by installing their own solar array,” he said. “It gives them a measure of independence by allowing them to produce most of their own energy and not worry much with the power company.”