Alternative Fuels are Gaining Steam in GA
Morris News Service
June 18, 2012 — ATLANTA --Georgia's latest solar-power installation went on line Thursday, adding another tile in the mosaic of the state's alternative-energy picture.
The picture is a miniature compared to other states in the percentage of its electricity that is generated by alternative sources like solar, wind and biomass. North Carolina has 108 megawatts of operating solar panels while Georgia has just 18, with the latest addition.
A politically "red state" like Georgia has never been known for legions of granola-munching, sandal-wearing tree huggers or as a leader in the use of alternative fuels, but some buttoned-down business executives are pushing it that way, even if they do clash with stereotypes.
"There is no conflict between being a conservative and being a friend to renewable energy," said Rep. Don Parsons, the Republican chairman of the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Committee. "...That's one of the problem you run into when you talk about alternative energy. They get the feeling that you've turned or whatever."
Parsons, who's served on the committee 18 years, contends the state has never had an energy plan. He is calling for government officials to be more proactive in dictating policy, including greater use of alternative fuels.
There have been some efforts. The General Assembly enacted a requirement that the government's fleet use a minimum of biodiesel. It also created tax credits for installation of solar equipment, but the $5 million yearly maximum for the state draws complaints from industry insiders as too small.
During the last session, solar advocates rallied behind Senate Bill 401 by Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, which would have opened the door to property owners who want solar panels financed through the sale of surplus electricity to private customers, something only regulated utilities can do now.
The bill bogged down in a Senate committee after intensive lobbying by Georgia Power and the state's electric-membership cooperatives who feared the consequences of the measure.
"Being scared is a right way to say this. The power companies are scared about this issue," said Parsons, R-Marietta.
Observers say a major concern for them is amending the law that divvied up the state into monopoly territories. Its passage four decades ago after years of bitter wrangling between them, a series of feuds the companies aren't eager to revisit.
Another policy goal is something insiders call "net metering." That's the requirement that Georgia Power pay retail rates to buy surplus electricity from customers. Currently, the Public Service Commission only requires it to pay wholesale rates or what the utility would have to pay for the same amount of energy from its other suppliers.
Georgia-based UPS is a marquee example of a company committed to alternative fuels in its delivery trucks. It also installs solar panels on the roofs of many of its warehouses in states with net metering because during the work day when the sun is shining its employees are driving their routes, leaving plenty of surplus energy to sell to utilities.
However, UPS buildings in its home state aren't studded with solar panels.
"Net metering is absolutely essential because it helps us make our cost targets," said Steve Leffin, UPS corporate sustainability manager.
Net metering should be the No. 1 policy goal for Georgia alternative-energy advocates, said Rhone Resch, president of Solar Energy Industries Association, because of the impact it's had in other states in developing a market.
"We have incredible opportunities about this industry here in Georgia, but we have to be very sober about the challenges," he said.
Georgia Power may not agree with net metering or every one of the policy positions of companies that make a living selling solar, wind or biomass installations, but it has begun to incorporate alternative-energy in its plans.
It is converting coal-burning plants to biomass. It has commitments for 20 megawatts of solar panels around the state, and it is sponsoring a long-anticipated study of placing wind turbines off the coast near Tybee Island.
Sister company Alabama Power just gained permission from regulators to erect its own turbines.
Tom Fanning, Southern Company CEO, explained the corporate approach to alternative fuels last year in an essay.
"First, the United States is blessed with a variety of energy resources. We've got to take advantage of all of them," he wrote.
The company is getting into alternative fuels in a big way in other states. It's building the nation's largest biomass plant in Texas, the nation's second-largest solar farm in New Mexico and 200 megawatts of wind production in Oklahoma.
The governors of Kansas and Arkansas, a Missouri utility commissioner and a Texas legislator were among the speakers at the world's largest convention for the industry of wind-generated electricity held in Atlanta this month, but the host state had little presence.
Georgia does have a handful of dedicated wind producers, like ZF Windpower of Gainesville that makes turbine gearboxes, but it's a subsidiary of a German company.
Wind farms, mile after mile of giant turbines linked together, have traditionally been limited to the flat states because experts thought the trees and hills in the East limited their potential.
Industry officials at the convention say that's changing with new technology, longer blades and 30 percent greater efficiency than five years ago.
"The truth is wind power is a natural fit in the South," said Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association that sponsored the 12,000-attendee convention.