By: Greyson Clark
As each advancing day provides more evidence of another hot Georgia summer, our attention is increasingly focused on two objects: the sun and the air conditioner. Thanks to the sun, many seek reprieve in an AC oasis (while others opt for a covered porch and a glass of sweet tea). As we seek our shelters to cool down, something is different than the years before: summertime sunrays and the AC have become political, as a statewide debate develops over Georgia’s electricity provision. The most recent chapter in the debate begins with Georgia Power’s currently proposed energy plans. Analysis of this debate raises pragmatic concerns and uncertainty about the democratic legitimacy of Georgia’s electricity industry.
This debate has a few actors central to provision of electricity. First is Georgia Power; Georgia Power is by far the largest electrical provider within a deeply regulated market and is a monopoly protected by state legislation. In balance with its monopoly on electricity provision, the Public Service Commission regulates Georgia Power. Finally, among these veterans are some newly emerging actors. As the price of solar energy drops precipitously, solar panel manufacturers and installers (like Suniva and MAGE Solar – which are based in Georgia and bring jobs) are becoming a more prominent part of the electro-political landscape. Further, groups such as Georgia Solar Utilities Inc. aim to introduce competition to the electrical provider market, challenging Georgia Power’s long held monopoly.
Three moving parts have intersected in the last few months, to bring the solar energy debate to the forefront in Georgia. First is the Georgia Power energy plan, which makes plans for no increase in solar energy production in the state. Second is the petition authored by Georgia Solar Utilities Inc., asking the Public Service Commission to require Georgia Power to include solar energy generation within its energy plan. Finally, within the General Assembly there is a legislative challenge to Georgia Power’s monopoly. Representative Rusty Kidd’s HB 657, if signed into law, would create a parallel solar energy monopoly, designed to provide a service that Georgia Power is under providing.
As these factors converge, electricity provision has become a political matter. The Public Service Commission sees this type of energy plan from Georgia Power every three years; yet one commissioner identifies this year’s as the most divisive in his memory. A second commissioner has stated his belief that Georgia Power will not add solar energy to its plan without being forced to by a vote of the Public Service Commission (at least 3 out of 5 members must vote to add solar energy generation). Commissioner McDonald believes at least 2 of his fellow commissioners would join him in supporting a change to the energy plan that would add solar power.
Further aspects of the debate further politicize the energy plan. For the first time, solar energy is losing the stigma of not being “feasible.” Couched in terms of economic development and market shares, support for solar is rising across much of the population. This is evidenced in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s “Market Mapper” application. Among other interactive maps, “Market Mapper” puts adoption of solar technologies in terms of a state-by-state competition. One Public Service Commissioner considers Georgia Power’s reluctance to incorporate solar as a loss for Georgia’s at California’s gain. Similarly, the rising competition between Atlanta and Charlotte is paralleled by Georgia’s uninspired energy generation methods compared with North Carolina’s renewable energy portfolio (adopted in 2008 and mandating 12.5% renewable energy generation). Even in southern Georgia at Dublin High School, local officials are bragging about their $3.5 million investment in solar panels; seen as a source of pride, economic and otherwise, officials are projecting large and almost immediate savings. It is telling that Georgia’s politicized solar industry is now argued in terms of market viability, competition, and job creation, showing the silent transition of the issue into the mainstream.
Within the political realm, another interesting phenomenon is occurring. As a variety of groups and perspectives begin to discuss electricity generation, there is a short-term politicization of solar energy. While this is a peak in politicization, it could reduce the long-term political conflict as solar energy adoption receives a consensus in favor. In essence, solar is becoming a non-issue, but it must first peak in the public discourse to become accepted. Previously antagonistic groups have moved to the same side of the issue. Among those speaking up for renewable energy are Tea Partiers, active community members, students, environmentalists, and religious groups. These diverse associations now view solar energy as feasible, urgent, and financially successful.
With so many disparate groups indicating a newfound consensus in support of renewable energy, a final question develops. Why does Georgia Power’s energy plan not include any new solar energy? This is perhaps the trickiest problem in the debate. For decades, Georgia Power and the Public Service Commission have played a central role in electricity provision (the PSC also regulates other major industries), but in a time of technological innovation and with the possibility of a disaggregated form of energy production, is Georgia Power’s monopoly becoming obsolete? Further, is Georgia Power’s failure to incorporate consumer demand institutional inertia or the sign of a failing monopoly trying to protect its market share? Does this make Georgia Power undemocratic? In a faster-paced energy market, where energy generation is no longer limited to outrageously expensive coal burning behemoths, it may no longer be as necessary as it was in the 1970s to keep a tight lid on competition. Surely there is room for startup companies to compete with Georgia Power (perhaps not in coal or nuclear energy, but in solar and wind energies, at least). Further uncertainties surround Southern Company’s extensive lobbying (Georgia Power is its subsidiary), The Center for Responsive Politics reports over $15 million spent in 2012 alone. Perhaps this power should be dispersed to those groups itching to join the market.
As we fire up the AC to keep out the Georgia scorcher, let us consider the emerging political implications of a task previously nonpolitical. Is Georgia Power watching the emergent market establish itself elsewhere in an attempt to protect its market? In using renewable energies, could we save money while simultaneously reducing our carbon footprint? The consensus has developed in favor of solar energy options and Georgia Power must be competitive in the new energy market or risk becoming a disservice to its state.