Saturday, December 8, 2012

Solar Energy: Smart power play

IT’S HEARTENING that Georgia Power wants to more than triple its solar capacity with panels at solar farms and on the roofs of ratepayers’ homes and businesses.

On Thursday, the utility filed a proposal with the Georgia Public Service Commission to acquire 210 megawatts of additional solar capacity over a three-year period.

The utility currently uses 61 megawatts of solar, enough to power about 7,600 homes.

Let’s hope the PSC puts this project in its regulatory fast-lane. It looks to be a smart move.

Georgia Power officials are calling its plan the “largest solar initiative in state history.” Greg Roberts, the company’s vice president of pricing and planning, noted that if it’s approved by the PSC, Georgia Power would become the largest solar player among investor-owned utilities in the 13 states where renewable energy quotas aren’t mandated by law.

That’s noteworthy. It proves that the private sector can be motivated, when technology and market conditions are right, to go green. The government doesn’t have to pick winners and losers.

Still, the proposal was too tepid for the national Solar Energy Industries Association. It wanted more, especially in distributed solar, the kind popping up on rooftops around the country.

The group should be patient.

Solar power has long been one of the cornerstones of the “green energy” movement, but it has yet to truly take off. The major hindrance has always been the mighty dollar.

Critics have long pointed out that the cost of solar panels is simply too much for the limited power they produce. However, recent years have seen costs sink and efficiency rise — and increased interest by large utilities like Georgia Power.

With sinking costs — solar panel prices have fallen over 75 percent in recent years, according to some in the industry — investments in solar energy make increasing economic sense. The benefits become clearer. Not only will expanded solar serve as a new source of energy, but it means less emissions and a cleaner environment.

Interestingly, Georgia Power’s filing comes a week after Georgia Solar Utilities proposed to become a competitor of Georgia Power and generate up to 2,000 megawatts. That’s about 10 times what Georgia Power plans.

That’s encouraging, too. Competition generally means more choices for consumers. That can translate into lower, more competitive prices.

PSC Commissioner Tim Echols praised the plan, saying it will allow small, medium and large utility-scale projects to be planned for and completed. He also said he expects it to be reviewed by the commission relatively quickly, in three to four months, and predicted it would pass.

Let’s hope that’s the case.

The market is ready for additional solar power in Georgia. The PSC should make sure Georgia is ready for the market.


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