Solar vs. biomass
PSC candidates differ on future energy source
by W. Winston Skinner
PSC candidates Lauren “Bubba” McDonald and Craig Lutz agree the sun is the source of Georgia’s future energy needs.
They strongly disagree, however, about the means of harnessing that energy. McDonald, Lutz and Doug Kidd are the three Republican candidates for the Georgia Public Service Commission post currently held by McDonald, and all three were at a forum sponsored by the Coweta County Republican Party on Thursday at Golden Corral in Newnan.
“Georgia leads the nation in solar development,” McDonald trumpeted during the forum at Golden Corral. “We lead the nation.” He said 2,600 new jobs were created in Georgia because of the solar industry within the past year.
“It’s good for Georgia,” McDonald said of solar power.
For Lutz, the answer comes from what grows using the sun’s power. “The best solar we have in Georgia are the products that come out of our soil … what God’s already given us,” Lutz said.
“I believe in green power, but I believe in finding green fuel,” Lutz said – specifically mentioning biomass, the burning of natural material such as timber scrap and pecan hulls. Lutz said he wants to see “solutions we can use that go into the existing infrastructure that’s already bought and paid for.”
Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, and that means the potential for solar generated electricity equal to that produced by 2.3 million barrels of oil, McDonald said.
Lutz said the PSC’s focus on solar power is a factor in keeping utility rates higher than they should be. “We actually have a surplus of power,” he said, which should lead to lower rates. He said requirements for solar power – he cited a 525 megawatt solar list item for Georgia Power – are expensive. “The Public Service Commission has been working on the wrong side of the issue,” Lutz said. “That power’s twice as expensive as what we’re producing today.”
A few years ago, the University of Georgia did a study that identified “10 things we grow that would give us energy cheaper than natural gas,” Lutz said. “Those things are still cheaper than what the current … price of natural gas is today.”
While natural gas is low right now, Lutz described the price as “volatile.” “Prices that may be low today may not be low tomorrow,” Kidd said.
“Natural gas is important,” Kidd said, adding that the longtime reliance on coal is a logical one. Coal is “cheap, plentiful and proven, he said. “We’ve used it for more than 100 years.”
The main problem with coal’s use is environmental regulation. “We have a federal government that’s waged a war on coal.” Kidd said.
McDonald said some old coal plants have been reworked to operate with natural gas, but he said costs for conversion are high.
“You can’t convert them all to natural gas. … You as a consumer can’t afford to pay that,” he said.
“There are a lot of agricultural products that we don’t use that we could consider. ... We could use a process to capture the gas off of it and use it” to generate power, Lutz said.
Kidd said the idea of using biomass – in a general sense – is a good idea. He opposed, however, mandating a percentage of power coming from biomass.
It should not be the PSC’s role to “pick winners or losers,” Kidd said. “All that does is give power to lobbyists.”
“Biomass is a technology that’s coming forth,” McDonald said. “The issue is making electricity from it – and by generating steam.”
He said a raft of environmental regulations make using biomass to generate power more complicated.
McDonald disagreed with Lutz’s use of the term “mandate” for solar power generation. He said there have been “no mandates, no upward pressure on the ratepayer” with regard to solar power or biomass.
“There are no solar subsidies in Georgia. There have been no solar mandates in Georgia,” McDonald insisted.
Lutz was not deterred. He said Georgia Power’s integrated power generation plan from the PSC includes some solar generation. “That’s a mandate. Your power bill is going to go up because of that mandate,” he said.
“Certainly solar’s not free. We can only produce it today for about 9.5 cents per kilowatt – and that’s with a lot of government subsidies,” Lutz said.
Kidd, an attorney, said he has some clients “who use solar for their businesses” and “are very pleased.” He said “the biggest policy problem” relating to solar power at the moment is the requirement that solar panels be purchased and not leased.
A bill that would have changed that rule “got nixed at the last minute” during the legislative session. Kidd said such a change would help cut costs.
“Solar is the wave of the future. Georgia is in the top five states in the nation in terms of solar,” McDonald said. He said solar generated power can be particularly helpful with meeting needs during peak hours.
Currently, he said, power companies must sometimes pay as much as $1 per kilowatt hour for peak power on the spot market – electricity they then sell for about 16 cents.
“Solar is not the baseload,” McDonald said, at least not today. “When the technology develops to … store it, that’s when it’s really going to pay us dividends.”
With regard to the solar-biomass debate, Lutz and McDonald both looked toward the future. “That sun,” McDonald said, “will be shining six years or 60 years from now.”
“That sun is going to continue to shine,” Lutz echoed, “and it’s going to continue to grow things.”