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Solar bill gets cloudy reception

There may be a brighter future for solar power in Georgia one day.

But the chances of it arriving sooner through a proposal in the state House are pretty dim, judging from lawmakers’ reactions at a hearing Wednesday.

The bill (HB 657) would allow for more companies to provide solar power to residents and businesses in Georgia, which gets less than 2 percent of its electricity from renewable fuels.

Lawmakers on the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee did not vote on the bill, but some said they are reluctant to support it because state utility regulators have already ordered Georgia Power to boost its solar output over the next couple of years.

“I’m sympathetic to the ideas, but what specifically do we need to do in here?” said Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R- Johns Creek. He said he has previously told Georgia Power executives the company has been “a little reluctant” to add solar to the power grid.

The utility now boasts it has “one of the fastest-growing solar programs in the nation,” which includes rooftop panels and solar farms, company officials have said.

The falling price of solar power has made it more cost-competitive. Consumers and environmentalists are clamoring for cleaner, cheaper electricity, and a movement is forming to free residents and businesses from getting all their electricity from a regulated monopoly.

Rep. Rusty Kidd, an independent from Milledgeville, is pushing the bill and has support from a fledgling solar company, Georgia Solar Utilities. The company approached Kidd after a failed attempt to gain “utility” status to sell solar power by the Georgia Public Service Commission.

Georgia Power and the state’s municipal and cooperative utilities lean on an arcane state law to say they are the state’s only approved sellers of electricity. This means solar firms without such status cannot sell sunpower directly to residents or businesses.

HB 657 would create a free market for solar and let more companies compete.

“The rates we’re paying today could be less if there was another source of power,” Kidd said.

Municipal and cooperative electric utilities have joined Georgia Power in opposing the proposal. Consumers would wind up paying more for electricity, and power grid’s reliability would be compromised, officials said.

The utility also is taking steps to maintain its control of solar growth. One example: a proposed tariff that covers the cost of Georgia Power supplying backup electricity when the solar panels aren’t in use, the utility says.

Georgia Power President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Bowers said states that set solar quotas of as much as 30 percent of electricity consumed have had difficulty managing that growth.

“That’s the issue. It’s how do you ensure your lights don’t go out. That’s the challenge,” Bowers said in a meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board Wednesday.