Plant Yates closure, more solar approved

by Sarah Fay Campbell

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Georgia Public Service Commission
 approved Georgia Power's plan to shut down coalfired units at several power plants, including Plant Yates in Coweta County, in a 4-1 vote Thursday. The company also will have to triple the amount of solar energy it will use in the future.

Georgia Power’s new solar energy program provides customers the opportunity to apply to sell the company power from the solar panels on their homes or businesses.

There were so many applications for the first round in March that a waiting list was set up.

Now that the utility company is under orders to triple its solar energy portfolio, lots more Georgians will have the opportunity.

Whether the state's largest electrical utility should be required to use more solar power became the key point of debate — and even rallies and protests — over Georgia Power's Integrated Resource Plan, which was amended and approved Thursday by the Georgia Public Service Commission.

The 20-year plan has to be updated every three years.

With solar in the spotlight, there wasn't much talk about the other major changes in the plan — the shuttering of the system's oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants, and additional air quality upgrades at some other plants.

Plant Yates in Coweta County will stop burning coal as of April 2015. Units 1 through 5 will be shut down and Units 6 and 7 will be converted to natural gas. The first five units were built in the 1950s and use "once through" cooling with water from the Chattahoochee River. Units 6 and 7 went online in 1974 and use a closed loop cooling system.

With only two units, the total output of the plant will be decreased by about 45 percent. When the proposal was announced in January, Georgia Power Spokesman Mark Williams said total employment at the plant would go from 224 to 106. He said at the time that there would be no layoffs from the retirement of Yates or the other plants. Instead, there would be transfers, retirements, and attrition.

The other coal-fired plants in Georgia will be shut down completely: Plant Branch on Lake Sinclair near Milledgeville, Plant Kraft near Savannah, and Plant McManus in Brunswick. Georgia Power is also decertifying a small oil-fired unit at Plant Bowen near Cartersville, and units 2 and 3 at Boulevard in Chatham County.

Georgia Power’s "Advanced Solar Initiative," approved in late 2012, is a plan to add 210 megawatts of solar energy over the next two years. It's divided into 45 MW of "distributed generation" — mainly solar panels on homes and businesses, and "utility scale" generation.

The 210 MW was already the largest amount of solar by any utility in a state without a renewable energy mandate, said Williams. The PSC voted 3 to 2 Thursday to require Georgia Power to have an additional 525 MW of solar. According to a press release from the PSC, half is supposed to be online by 2015 and the rest by 2016. The requirement is for 100 MW of distributed generation and 425 MW of utility scale.

Applications for the first 11 MW of distributed generation were submitted in March, and there were so many that a lottery was held to determine which projects would go forward, and a waiting list was set up.

Participants will be paid $0.13 per kilowatt hour for the small and medium providers. The "request for proposals" for the utility scale generation went out in May, and bids were due June 4. It's a competitive bid process, and there is a price cap of $0.12 per KWH, said Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft.

Kraft said they still weren't sure whether the additional solar needs to be online and producing by 2015 and 2016, or just in the works. "The proposal may have been a little vague," he said. "I'm not sure we have worked all that out."

Even with the closing of the coal-fired plants, Georgia Power has 25 to 35 percent more generating capacity than it needs.

The additional solar won't increase that percentage, Williams said, because solar is an intermittent resource. When it's sunny and solar is producing, they will be able to avoid having to use power from other sources. "But you do need a certain amount of base-load generating capacity that is going to be available all the time," he said.

The solar also won't increase rates, according to Williams.

"We do not anticipate it having any upward pressure on rates," he said.

What about downward pressure? "That remains to be seen… it's very early in that process."

Cowetan Rick Page attended Thursday's PSC meeting and said people were very passionate about the solar issue. "I am a little surprised at the emotions present," he said.

Page is in favor of solar, and had solar panels on his home when he lived in Arizona. "I saved money. It was great," he said. Arizona and Massachusetts are examples of states where "solar power has worked for everyone, both ratepayers and power companies," Page said. "All are making profits and sharing power. It does work."

Page said Georgia Power also announced at the meeting that they had signed a power purchase agreement with a wind turbine company.

Several environmental organizations were advocating for increased solar, but they were joined by a rather unexpected group — members of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots and other tea party groups and Georgia Conservatives in Action, part of the new "Green Tea Coalition."

According to the Green Tea coalition, an anti-solar rally by Americans for Prosperity included three speakers, four members of the press and no citizen activists.

“Now is the time to take this momentum and push forward for a fair and open bidding process on new solar energy projects by Georgia Power," said Debbie Dooley of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. "Furthermore, we will also be looking at the Legislature next year to make sure our elected officials know that this movement for more solar and ratepayer rights has only just begun."

“Today, Georgia Public Service Commissioners stood up for conservative solar and we appreciate that the Commission waited until the price of solar was right for everyday Georgians," said Kay Godwin of Georgia Conservatives in Action. "Now is the time for our coalition to continue its efforts for conservative solar and monitor the bidding process for additional solar energy that will benefit Georgia ratepayers and not Wall Street investors.



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