Opinion - Don't let Georgia Power derail solar power

Proposal under Gold Dome deserves moment in sun

Say you own a coffee shop. You'd like to install solar panels on your roof but can't afford them. A company offers to install and lease you the equipment, provided you sign a long-term contract. The company will sell you energy at a cheaper rate than you already pay Georgia Power. No longer would you be so susceptible to spikes in electricity prices. Nor would your money be helping to support burning coal or nuclear power.

Sounds kind of cool, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it's also not allowed in Georgia.

Last week, however, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a bill that would make these types of third-party arrangements possible — much to the aggravation of Georgia Power. Sponsored by state Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, the legislation would make it easier for residents, businesses, and schools to strike deals with solar companies to install photovoltaic panels on their roofs to help offset some of their power bills.

Lobbyists for Georgia Power and the state's electric co-ops will probably roll out the usual bogeyman argument that SB 401 "will kill jobs" or "cause rates to increase." Or they'll try to convince easily swayed lawmakers that they're watching Big Government intervene in the marketplace or pushing the agenda of evil environmentalists. But they're wrong on all counts.

These lawmakers — did we mention that one of the co-sponsors is the powerful Senate Majority Leader? — have proposed a common-sense measure that would put people to work, create a new sector in Georgia's economy, and promote clean energy. In addition, the legislation would help shield people from increases in electricity rates, which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, have risen nearly 50 percent over the last seven years.

The real reason Georgia Power's smokestacks are in a knot is because the utility is concerned this measure will cut into its profits. (It's worth noting that, as a regulated monopoly, Georgia Power is guaranteed an 11 percent profit each year.) It shouldn't worry too much — the total amount of energy that could be generated by solar panels is most likely only a fraction of the state's total production. And customers would still have to be connected to the grid.

Georgia Power is in the process of mothballing three of its coal plants because of stricter federal pollution requirements at the same time it's doubling down on two new nuclear reactors near Augusta, which were approved by the feds last week. But the Peach State needs to further diversify its energy resources. Georgia Power had the opportunity to become a leader in the development of solar power in the Southeast, but it took a pass. Now it's time to give others a chance.

There's the potential for some political shenanigans to derail SB 401. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle assigned the legislation to the Senate natural resources committee rather than to the utilities committee, a move some insiders worry could be part of a scheme to scuttle the bill. And there are already murmurings that state lawmakers want to "take their time" or "discuss the legislation over the summer," which is usually code for "Let's kill this quietly."

We shouldn't allow this to happen. The bill deserves a full and proper vetting.

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