Southern Company balks at Senate solar power proposal

A Senate proposal that would clear the way for private property owners and businesses in Georgia to buy solar panels and power from a third party has several supporters. But one major opponent could make getting the legislation through this session a formidable challenge.

Senate Bill 401 would let outside companies install, own and maintain alternative energy systems like solar. Supporters including lawmakers, businesses and environmental groups say the legislation encourages renewable energy expansion in the state, supports private property rights, is good for power consumers and will be a boost to the economy.

“The power company ought to be doing this, but they don’t want to buy it from anybody that produces it,” said state Sen. Buddy Carter, the bill’s main sponsor.

The state’s main electricity provider, Georgia Power, is opposing the legislation, pointing to the state’s Electric Service Act. Created nearly four decades ago, the law established assigned territories for the power company, along with 42 electric membership cooperatives and 52 cities with municipal systems, all competing for customers.

Spokeswoman Christy Ihrig said in a statement that the proposed bill would illegally infringe on the company’s territory and that the introduction of a new supplier could drive up rates for customers because utilities would be required to hike costs. She added the company is supportive of solar power and is working to provide solar as an option to customers.

President Barack Obama has signaled he considers renewable energy options a top priority and wants the country to move away from dependence on foreign oil. Last year, the state Legislature passed a bill doubling the yearly limit for solar energy tax credits to make the resource more appealing to businesses.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle assigned the bill to the Natural Resources and Environment Committee, rather than the Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee — a move seen by some as a stall tactic. Cagle spokesman Ben Fry said the decision was made because of committee chairman Sen. Ross Tolleson’s expertise on the issue.

“This is an issue that his committee has spent a lot of time learning about,” Fry said.

The bill has yet to have a hearing. It must pass at least one chamber of the house in the next eight legislative days to remain alive this session.

Tolleson said the bill could come up in committee this week, but expressed concerns about the proposal.

“What would the impact be to ratepayers? What are the long-term energy costs?” he asked. “This is not a bill that you just run through the building. I don’t think we’ll have time to understand the whole story (this session). I think we need multiple hearings here and around the state.”

Under current law, private property owners can buy their own systems. But because it has been fairly expensive to do so, the proposition was an unlikely one for most — as evidenced by the lack of solar in the state. Nonetheless, solar will become more affordable, accessible and appealing with the increase in panel production by China and amid rising electricity costs, said Jill Johnson, a lobbyist for the Georgia Solar Industries Association and the Georgia Solar Energy Association.

“Georgia is one of the top 20 states for solar jobs, but it’s not really happening here,” Johnson said.

Savannah dermatologist Sydney Smith said solar is the future of Georgia and the path to energy independence. Smith has a solar farm in Bulloch County and is the co-founder of Lower Rates for Customers, which is currently providing solar power to a business in south Georgia.

“We have a property rights issue: Who owns the sunshine, and does a property owner get to do anything he wants with it?” Smith said. “Georgia Power says he can use it to grow grass, get a sunburn, but he’s not allowed to change it to electricity. That’s not correct.”

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