How Georgia Became a Top 10 Solar State, With Lawmakers Barely Lifting a Finger

The state has plenty of sun, but little support for solar power in the legislature. Here’s how a Republican who goes by ‘Bubba’ changed the energy landscape.

Georgia Power, at the prodding of a state energy regulator, has led the state's solar boom over the past five years. Photo credit: Georgia Tech Research Institute

Over the past five years, Georgia has become one of the nation's leading states for solar power, but it didn't get there in the usual way.

It doesn't offer tax credits, and the legislature has never created a state renewable portfolio standard requiring utilities to sell renewable energy. There is no net-metering law to let solar homes sell excess energy back to the grid at retail prices.

Instead, an early Trump supporter who leads the state's Public Service Commission has been pushing Georgia Power, the state's largest utility, to invest in clean energy by ensuring that solar is included in the utility's long-term power plans, updated every three years. Lauren "Bubba" McDonald, Jr., saw other states moving toward solar, looked at Germany's record-setting solar investments, and concluded that Georgia was being left behind with its focus on nuclear and coal. He wasn't going to let it stay there.

McDonald could have more solar support joining him on the regulatory commission soon. Solar advocates expect a voter backlash this fall against the all-Republican, elected commission over a costly nuclear power plant expansion.

If voters boot one or both of the PSC members on the ballot and replace them with pro-solar Democrats, that would solidify a solar-friendly block on the commission—likely leading to more utility-scale solar, and, as Georgia Tea Party activist Debbie Dooley argues, potentially influencing the General Assembly to take a fresh look at giving rooftop solar a boost.

Candidates for this kind of commission don't normally draw much attention, but a surcharge on customers' electric bills, courtesy of Georgia Power's over-budget expansion of the Vogtle nuclear power plant, has turned a spotlight on the PSC. The typical Georgia Power customer has been paying an extra $100 a year since 2011 for reactors that won't start generated electricity until at least 2021. Last year, the commission told Georgia Power to keep working on the two new reactors despite the cost overruns.

"The cost overruns have become an issue," said University of Georgia political science professor Trey Hood. While it's hard for any Democrat to win statewide office Georgia, he said, "people can directly connect the dots" between the PSC and their power bills.

Solar advocates from both parties see potential for ramping up clean energy in the state even more.

"Georgia is at a clean energy crossroads," said Jennette Gayer, state director of the group Environment Georgia. "We have the potential to continue to grow our clean-energy footprint. The question is do we flatline or continue that upward trajectory."

Falling Prices, Low Interest Rates, Lots of Sun

Georgia's solar capacity has increased dramatically in the past five years, ever since the PSC required Georgia Power—an investor-owned utility with 2.5 million customers—to install hundreds of megawatts of solar farms starting in 2013. 

With Georgia lawmakers avoiding policies that could be viewed by conservatives as subsidies, the state achieved much of its solar growth through an energy planning process with Georgia Power that is overseen by the PSC. 

The commission doesn't view its solar requirements as a type of mandate. "It's an agreement between Georgia Power and the PSC," said commission spokesman Bill Edge. 

There were no subsidies involved, McDonald said. As Georgia Power, the largest subsidiary of Southern Company, has expanded its solar capacity, solar farms have been built and operated by other companies through competitive bidding, helping to keep costs down, Edge said. 

"It's market driven," McDonald said. The state has "lots of good, flat land," plenty of sunshine, and interest rates were low, making solar investments more affordable. The initiative was carried out as solar technology was advancing and prices for solar panels were falling, he said. "It was like a perfect storm."

McDonald, a former state lawmaker whose current term on the commission won't expire until 2020, said he still supports coal, nuclear and natural gas because they can run 24 hours a day, but he said solar offered an opportunity to help diversify the state's energy mix.

With the cost of solar power in Georgia dropping from 13 cents per kilowatt-hour to below 4 cents in the last five years, McDonald said he expected continued growth in a way that moves "slowly and methodically."  

Georgia reached No. 8 in the Solar Energy Industry Association's 2016 national rankings. And last year, at No. 9, it was producing enough electricity from the sun to power about 175,000 homes. Before 2013, Georgia didn't have much solar power at all.

Solar is still less than 2 percent of the state's electricity generation mix—almost all of it utility scale—so there's plenty of room to grow.

Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said that compared to distributed, rooftop systems, "utility scale solar is currently the most cost effective, and these large-scale installations provide the most value for Georgia Power customers." But he also said the utility does offer customers programs to support rooftop solar.

Renewable energy "plays an important role in the diverse generation mix we use to serve customers," Wilson Mallard, director of renewable development for Georgia Power, said in a written statement. The company, he said, will continue to make sure every renewable energy project "helps us keep energy reliable and affordable."

An Unusual Alliance: Sierra Club + Tea Party

The gains of the last five years were made in part because people who are not normally political allies have worked together, or at least rowed their separate boats in the same direction.

Just a few years ago, critics, utilities and elected officials were saying solar power was too expensive and the state was too cloudy, recalled Sierra Club's Georgia Director Ted Terry.

Lauren 'Bubba' McDonald, Jr., chairman of Georgia's PSC

"I give a lot of credit to Bubba (McDonald)," Terry said. "He actually went to Germany, where it is cloudy, and found how they were deploying solar without as much (sun) as in Georgia," he said. "When he sees something that's working, he's going for it. He sticks with it."

Dooley, whose Green Tea Coalition and out-of-the-ordinary views have drawn a lot of national attention, helped persuade the commission to expand solar in the state.

"You respect each other's differences and you understand everybody has a right to believe what they believe, and you focus on what you have in common," Dooley said.

The Big Lift: Getting the Legislature to Help

Success with a five-member commission is one thing. Moving the state's conservative legislature toward new policies that encourage rooftop or smaller-scale distributed solar will be a bigger political lift.

"Historically we have not had solar-friendly policies," said solar business owner Don Moreland, chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association. He described fighting for pro-solar legislation as "a long slog".

But that slog sometimes pays off, and Georgia in 2015 joined more than two dozen other states in allowing third parties to finance limited-sized solar systems. Its Solar Power Free-Market Financing Act of 2015 was passed with support from a broad coalition of electric utilities, environmental interests and others. With this business model, homes and businesses are allowed to host solar panels installed and operated by a solar provider and, though long-term contracts, get some of their benefits without having to pay the up-front costs or maintenance. 

Dooley, who in 2016 helped defeat a utility-backed measure in Florida to limit rooftop solar power, argues that the nuclear plant backlash in Georgia could open new opportunities for more coalition-building and more compromise to advance solar power.

"A lot of people are looking at it and wanting solar and renewable energy as a way to provide some kind of competition," she said. "A lot of Tea Party activists don't like monopolies at all."

Dooley wants to buck conservative doctrine and persuade the legislature to boost financial incentives for residential rooftop solar.

Even as utilities in other states try to claw back net metering policies, she wants Georgia lawmakers to make sure people with rooftop solar get a "fair market rate" for the extra electricity their solar panels produce.

Lawmakers should also make sure homeowners and businesses can sell electricity generated by their solar panels to their neighbors, she said. And she thinks electric cooperatives need to be told they must be faster connecting privately owned solar panels into their systems.

The Solar Message for a Conservative State

"It's all about the message," Dooley said. "Free market, competition, choice, expanding the energy portfolio and energy mix. I don't want excessive regulations."

Some lawmakers might be receptive to her arguments. But they're monitoring the political winds and watching Plant Vogtle.

"I wasn't a big supporter of solar, but the economics have drastically changed," said State Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Republican from northeast Georgia who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and has been critical of the nuclear plant's financing.

He echoed Dooley in saying Plant Vogtle's problems have voters looking for other energy choices and acknowledged he's thinking about introducing legislation with implications for solar power.

Terry, with the Sierra Club, said he's optimistic about solar in Georgia.

Solar technology continues to improve, he said. He noted that Atlanta is expected this month to spell out how it intends to get all its electricity from clean fuel sources by 2035, likely giving solar another boost.

"It's just a good time to be in this space," he said. "There is so much happening with this technology."