The fight to bring cheaper, clean energy to Georgia is uniting some unlikely allies. Renewable energy advocates and leaders of the Atlanta Tea Party are taking on utility giant Southern Co., and its subsidiary Georgia Power, over resisting the call to expand its development of solar energy.
As Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party explained in an interview with Climate Progress, the group’s interest in the debate is quite simple: “The free market has been one of the founding principles of the Tea Party since it began and a monopoly is not a free market.”
In Georgia — as in many states — utilities are granted a monopoly over the ability to sell power, which means that customers have no choice in where they get their electricity. A major provision of the monopoly is that Georgia Power act in the best interest of ratepayers, regulated by the Public Service Commission.
Dooley said the Tea Party believes consumers should be able to exercise choice when it comes to their energy source and the activists she works with don’t want to be dependent on one or two energy sources. And Dooley’s effort is not aimed at reducing carbon emissions — in fact, she doesn’t believe in global warming — but based on their view that solar is a commonsense alternative for Georgia ratepayers that could function without subsidies.
As this atypical coalition has come together to introduce competition into the electrical provider market and challenge Georgia Power’s long-held monopoly, Southern Co. continues to ignore consumer demand and market trends. In a recent speech to the Atlanta Press Club, Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning said, “There may come a time in the next decade when these things will be more competitive. It’s just not right now.”
One reason for this may be that distributed energy resources, like solar, threaten the core business model of utilities. As David Roberts explains in depth on Grist, an expansion of rooftop solar, for example, is a major risk to the utility model because it reduces demand for their most valuable product and goes straight at utilities’ main profit centers.
And the Tea Party isn’t the only unlikely voice for solar in Georgia. Lauren “Bubba” McDonald of the Public Service Commission also wants more solar in Georgia, although his plan would work within the existing utility structure. McDonald told Climate Progress that his decades of experience as a state lawmaker and as an elected member of the PSC, along with research and observation of the solar industry, has led him to believe the time is right for a significant expansion of solar energy in Georgia. He cited a study conducted by Arizona State University that ranks Georgia in the top five for potential benefits from solar expansion, but 38th in actual solar deployment.
The PSC, made up of five Republicans, is currently debating Georgia Power’s long-term plan for meeting the state’s energy needs. Despite the rapidly declining cost of solar and increasing pressure from solar companies and other advocates, the plan includes no new provisions for solar energy. Amending the plan requires a majority of commissioners and the vote is currently scheduled for mid-July.
Motivated by the intent to give consumers reliable electricity at the best price, McDonald is working on a plan for a robust expansion of solar in the state, which he intends to present to his colleagues in the next week. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution explains, it “would require massive fields of solar panels — presumably installed across south Georgia, where land is cheap, sunshine is plentiful, and the imminent closing of several coal-fired Georgia Power plants is being looked upon with dread by local communities.”
Even if the Public Service Commission forces Georgia Power to expand its use of solar power in their energy plan, Dooley said the fight is far from over. She plans to continue her efforts by pushing for upcoming legislation that would allow private companies to set up solar farms and feed their energy into Georgia Power’s grid, continuing to put pressure on Georgia Power for cost overruns at its Vogtle nuclear power plant, and possibly even challenging the law that grants monopoly rights to utilities.
Richard Caperton, Managing Director of Energy at the Center for American Progress, contributed.