Though it initially resisted expanding solar power in Georgia, Southern Co. now wants to build solar projects in the state.
Southern Power may propose building new solar energy facilities to provide electricity for the nearly 2.4 million customers served by Georgia Power, according to documents filed with state regulators. Both firms are subsidiaries of the Atlanta-based Southern Co.
Georgia Power executives have historically argued that solar was ill-suited to the state’s climate and too expensive. The utility had no intention of adding new solar energy to its system when it put forward plans for meeting the state’s energy needs for the next 20 years. That reluctance prompted a political fight with leaders of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots and the solar industry, which pushed the Public Service Commission to approve a solar expansion.
Georgia Power agreed to add 525 megawatts of solar energy to its system when it became clear the PSC would vote in favor of an expansion. Southern Power is considering a project to meet some of that demand, though the firm has not made a final decision on whether to bid, company spokeswoman Jeannice Hall said.
Unlike the traditional utilities that generate most of Southern Co.’s revenue, Southern Power buys and develops power plants, then sells the electricity wholesale to other utilities. In partnership with Turner Renewable Energy, it owns five solar plants in New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina and California. The 139-megawatt solar plant in California’s Imperial County started producing commercial power last month.
Southern Co. officials will be required to follow rules intended to make sure that Georgia Power does not favor a proposal from Southern Power since they are part of the same company. State rules forbid the Southern Power team developing the proposal from communicating with their counterparts at Georgia Power. All bid proposals and questions will be submitted to an independent evaluator appointed by state utility regulators. The elected members of the PSC, not Georgia Power, ultimately vote on which bids to accept.
Atlanta Tea Party Patriots co-founder Debbie Dooley said she was still concerned about the potential for a conflict of interest. Dooley said she hoped more solar projects would allow at least limited competition in an electricity market now served by a state-regulated monopoly.
“The bottom line is we need competition to Georgia Power,” Dooley said. “If they want to come in and have a subsidiary bid on this, they’re entitled to do that. But they need to recuse themselves completely from the process.”
A lobbyist for the Georgia Solar Energy Industries Association, Jason Rooks, said he was less concerned and believed the bidding process would be fair.
“We have maintained all along that we want competition. So I think that’s a two-way street,” Rooks said. “... So I think as long as there’s a level playing field, we welcome it.”