Proposed solar company could stir up Georgia's utility structureBy Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – A proposal from a start-up business promises to lower electricity rates by rebating profits to customers if it is given a chance to compete as Georgia Power Co.'s "mirror image."
To proceed with its long-range plan of developing 2 gigawatts of solar power, the start-up, Georgia Solar Utilities Inc., wants to start by building an 80-megawatt "solar farm" near Milledgeville as soon as it gets a green light from the Georgia Public Service Commission. GaSU filed its request last week, and as of Monday, it's still too fresh for public evaluation.
GaSU executives recognize such a big change won't come easily.
"There are obstacles. There's no question there are obstacles, but you have to look at the rewards," GaSU President Robert E. Green said at a Capitol news conference. "We don't know what it's going to take, but we are prepared to go through legislative action if necessary."
Legislative action is indeed likely to be necessary, according to observers. A 40-year-old law divides the state up and gives regional monopolies to Georgia Power, the electric-membership cooperatives and nearly 50 cities.
Anyone familiar with the nasty fights that were frequent before the law's passage tends to be reluctant to open it up to changes. That was the reaction last year to legislation sponsored by Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, that sought to alter the law so that other companies could sell solar power in small batches to customers who make their roofs available as sites for solar panels through purchased-power agreements.
All five members of the Public Service Commission have called for more renewable energy. Two of them, David Everett and Lauren "Bubba" McDonald attended last week's GaSU press conference but said they were not prejudging its proposal.
Commissioner Chuck Eaton issued a press release saying he had been working with Georgia Power on a proposal for expanded solar that meets his requirement of not boosting customers' rates. The giant utility is expected to release details soon.
"That's one of the big things we're trying to do is work that out so it doesn't put that upward pressure on rates," said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft.
GaSU could build its solar farm without action by the legislature or the PSC, and existing federal law would require Georgia Power to buy its electricity. But it would only pay GaSU an amount equal to what it could buy electricity from its cheapest, wholesale supplier.
The start-up wants instead to sell its electricity directly to retail customers who would be billed by Georgia Power or the other existing utilities, similar to how natural gas is marketed here. GaSU would pay the utilities for the use of their wires in the electric grid and any profits would be shared with customers like a cooperative.
Because GaSU has no aging power plants and wouldn't have to buy coal or gas as fuel to generate its electricity, its executives figure it could be profitable charging lower rates. It would make use of the federal investment-tax credit but expects to need no other subsidy.
How the PSC acts remains to be seen, whether it supports Georgia Power's unseen plan or GaSU's proposal.
As has been noted by solar advocates, Georgia is among the states with the most untapped potential.
"GaSU also thinks that because solar is a new technology with new effects on ratepayers, there are good reasons for the GA PSC to consolidate its development into a single company that is a mirror image of (Georgia Power) and is afforded the protection of the (a monopoly utility)," noted the company's formal PSC petition.