The rise of Georgia solar

Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia’s solar energy future looks bright as the state’s clean energy sector attracts record-setting private investment and creates jobs. Today, two advocates for renewable energy address the topic, while I compile a list of pros and cons associated with the implementation of sun-kissed energy.

Investing in our solar system

By Phyllis Cuttino

Throughout Georgia’s history, the state’s sunny climate has drawn settlers and self-starters, but never before has the sun itself driven a revolution like the one happening now: a solar power boom that’s creating thousands of jobs and reducing Georgians’ reliance on conventional energy.

In 2013, Georgia boasted the fastest-growing solar energy market in the U.S., adding 91 megawatts of capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The state has enough solar capacity to power 8,405 homes. From 2012 to 2013, solar industry jobs in Georgia more than tripled, rising from 800 to 2,600 — the largest percentage increase of any state.

That growth is expected to continue, thanks to several factors: strong clean energy research programs at state institutions such as Georgia Tech, funded in part by U.S. Department of Energy grants; public-private partnerships; falling costs for renewables and strong leadership from the Georgia Public Service Commission.GPSC commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, after watching the rise of solar in Arizona, California, and elsewhere, persuaded Georgia Power to include solar energy in the utility’s 2013 integrated resource plan. “I told them, ‘We can do this as partners and get it done, or as adversaries and everyone — including ratepayers — will lose,’ ” McDonald says.

Today, Georgia’s renewable energy industry shows yet again that what’s good for the environment can also be very good for the economy. Georgia’s clean energy sector attracted $477 million in private investment in 2013, the eighth-highest figure in the nation. Of that, $326 million went to the solar sector, a 1,025 percent increase over 2012. The state is now home to more than 140 solar companies.

Georgia Power is also working with the U.S. Army Energy Initiatives Task Force to build, own and operate solar power systems at three Army bases: Fort Stewart, Fort Benning and Fort Gordon. By 2016, each base will house 30 megawatts of installed solar capacity that together will produce 18 percent of the energy used on the bases and will move the Army 9 percent closer to its goal of deploying 1 gigawatt of renewable energy by 2025.

As solar power storage and transmission improve, Georgia will enjoy another economic opportunity: A study by Arizona State University ranked it third among states that would benefit the most from selling solar power to other states.

To maintain and build on this momentum, Georgia’s growing solar industry needs the federal government to extend the investment tax credit, which allows residential and commercial customers to take a federal tax deduction of 30 percent of the cost of a solar system; that credit is set to expire at the end of this year. Industry leaders say the credit has helped fuel solar installation growth of more than 1,600 percent nationally since 2006. That growth, in turn, has helped to drive the cost of solar down 80 percent since 2009.

This federal tax policy is a complement to the state’s energy policies, which include a 2013 public service commission directive calling for Georgia Power to add 525 megawatts of solar power by 2016; a buy-back program that allows customers to purchase electricity from the utility’s solar portfolio; interconnection guidelines that enable residential customers who have installed clean energy systems to link to the main grid; and “net metering,” which allows residential customers to generate electricity from their systems to offset bills from the power company.

The evidence is clear: Georgia is establishing itself as a leader in clean, reliable, affordable, job-creating solar energy. Extending the federal investment tax credit will help ensure that even more Georgians benefit from harnessing the power of this plentiful resource.

Phyllis Cuttino directs the Clean Energy Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A clean energy leader

By Tony Von Otnott and Steve Valk

This legislation has the support of the Sierra Club, the Green Tea Party, Southern Company, more than 40 Georgia-based EMCs, municipalities and the Metro Atlanta Chamber. This free-market, financing legislation will give residential and small business owners free choice in how to power their buildings and opens the marketplace to third-party financing, which currently underwrites more than 80 percent of solar installations in the country. In February the bill sailed through the House. Passage in the Senate seems all but assured.

As we make solar energy easier for Georgia homeowners to obtain, we can also make it more attractive by putting a national price on carbon that factors in the true cost of fossil fuels. The best approach – recently proposed by former Secretary of State George Shultz in the Washington Post – is a steadily-rising fee on the carbon dioxide content of such fuels, with revenue from the fee returned to households.A study of this proposal, known as Carbon Fee and Dividend, found that in 20 years CO2 emissions would be cut in half and 2.8 million jobs would be added to the economy, primarily because of the economic stimulus of recycling revenue into pockets of people likely to spend the money.

Because solar is the fastest-growing energy source in the U.S., there are a number of utility companies fighting this inevitable transition to clean energy, including one in Arizona where a $50 monthly fee will be imposed for rooftop solar customers. We’re fortunate, however, to have a progressive Public Service Commission that sees through this false narrative that homeowners who choose a clean energy option for residential power generation are somehow not contributing to the expense of electrical grid maintenance.

Studies conducted on solar cite many benefits for power companies: avoided energy generation; avoided transmission losses; less need to purchase expensive power during peak usage; the financial benefits of a fossil fuel price hedge; less need for expensive peak power plant construction; enhanced security from attacks on our currently centralized power grid stations.

Last but not least, of course, are the environmental benefits of clean energy utilization – cleaner air, water and fewer greenhouse gas emissions that impact on our global climate.

Significantly building capacity to Georgia’s renewable energy industry will also help the state meet the EPA’s flexible Clean Power Plan requirements for a 30 GHG emissions reduction by 2030 while simultaneously growing our local economy. In fact, a recent report by the International Energy Agency noted, for the first time in 40 years, there’s been a halt or reduction in global GHG emissions not tied to an economic downturn and not resulting in economic devastation.

Some of the fastest-growing economies are doing the most to combat carbon emissions while growing jobs at the same time. The international agency found that while the rich countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development grew about 7 percent over a four-year period, emissions fell 4 percent.

Georgia is a relative latecomer to the solar-energy boom, but with initiatives underway to increase Georgia Power’s use of solar and legislation making roof-top solar an affordable option for homeowners, our state can be a leader in the nation’s clean energy economy.

Troy Von Otnott is founder of Massive Technologies, an Atlanta-based Social Impact Investment & Advisory Firm. Steve Valk is communications director for Citizens Climate Lobby.

Solar energy pros and cons

By Rick Badie

Renewable energy stands poised to become a major player in Georgia with solar electricity apparently leading the way. A guest writer noted today that Georgia, in 2013, had the fastest-growing solar energy market in the United States. Energy-related projects are expected to become economic mainstays.

Meanwhile, debate continues nationwide about this environmentally-friendly concept. Here’s a compilation of pros and cons as it relates to the increasing trend to “go solar.”

Pros* Solar energy is renewable, abundant and sustainable. The sun will outlive us.

* The manufacturing, transportation and installation of solar power systems produces emissions, but not like conventional energy sources.

* Solar reduces electricity costs.

* Federal and state incentives can reduce the cost of going solar for homeowners and businesses.

* Solar is a clean energy source.

* Solar panels, which can be installed on rooftops, pay for themselves in the long run.

Cons

* The initial cost to install solar panels is expensive, though prices to install them on homes have dropped in recent years. Quality solar cells are estimated to start at $1,000 or more. One’s home, location and size add to the cost of system installation. Then there’s site preparation – reconfiguration of a house’s electric system, infrastructure upgrades to roofs where solar panels would be installed and so on. It’s been said that one-fifth of U.S. homes are unfit for solar panels.

* Solar energy can only produce power during the daytime, when the sun shines. Climate and weather patterns — think cloudy days — can influence how well panels work.

*Batteries to aid demand, load and give homeowners access to power during evening hours — when the sun doesn’t shine — are heavy, large and require occasional replacement.

* While less of a pollutant than fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions stem from some manufacturing processes. Nitrogen trifluoride and sulfur hexafluoride have been traced back to solar panel production. Still, the carbon footprint is much lower than for fossil fuel alternatives.

Sources: Conserve Energy Future, Energy Informative, Aboutmoney.com and USA Today.

 


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