Ga. lagging on solar energy front, panelists say

hduncan@macon.comApril 25, 2013 

The following story incorrectly described statements by Anthony Coker, a director with Atlanta solar company Suniva. He spoke about a new law that allows performance contracting for energy retrofits on government facilities. Below is a corrected version of the story.

Georgia’s energy future could be in algae and the sun. But leaders in the renewable energy field who participated in a Macon panel on Wednesday, while praising progress in the renewables industry, said both technology and regulation have a long way to go.

Solar and energy executives, along with researchers and environmental advocates, spoke on “Energy and Technology: The Greening of America” at Georgia College & State University’s campus on Cherry Street. The event wound up the university’s annual Water, Energy and Transportation Symposium.

Panelist Dan Bramblett, board chairman of the Green Chamber of the South, pointed out that Georgia and Florida are at the back of the pack when it comes to solar energy production, despite having some of the country’s highest potential. Georgia has been a late-adopter partly because the Southeast has enjoyed such cheap conventional energy, Bramblett said. In recent years, the price of solar equipment dropped low enough to compete.

Susanne Fischer-Quinn, corporate communications manager for MAGE Solar USA in Dublin, said Germany -- which receives far less sunlight -- powered half its grid on solar energy one day last summer.

“If Germany can pull it off, in Georgia we’re sitting on a gold mine,” she said.

MAGE recently collaborated with the Dublin school district on installing solar panels at the district’s high school, reducing electricity costs enough for the district to avoid furloughs.

Gary Lee, executive director of the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency, attended Wednesday’s panel to learn more about renewable energy, partly because his city is interested in doing a similar project with its school district. Lee said he met with representatives of other local governments such as Fort Valley earlier this week to explore the possibilities.

Anthony Coker, a director with Atlanta solar company Suniva, noted that 15 states allow third-party financing of solar systems for homes and businesses.

Several bills have been floated in Georgia that would explicitly allow companies to essentially install solar panels for free on a building, then provide free electricity to the owner while selling the excess to the energy grid.

Coker said this would be more beneficial to development of Georgia’s solar industry than a bill recently floated by state Rep. Rusty Kidd, I-Milledgeville, that focuses on opening Georgia Power’s grid to large private solar farms.

Coker said this approach, instigated by Macon-based company Georgia Solar Utilities, aims to create a new monopoly rather than opening the solar field to competition.

Georgia Power has opposed all these bills, saying they would open the door to energy deregulation in the state.

Georgia Power green energy manager Wilson Mallard basically said the company doesn’t want to mess with an effective system in order to bring a particular energy source on line.

“We think solar is already coming to Georgia in a cost-effective way,” he said. Within the last year, Georgia Power has announced or begun the development of about 260 megawatts of solar energy, from solar farms to small arrays on homes and businesses.

Coker and others disagree with Georgia Power, saying third-party financing could be permitted without changes to the Territorial Act that divided up the state among power companies.

“The Co-Generation and Distributed Generation Act is what’s getting in the way of free-market capitalism,” and it could be clarified without overhauling the state’s energy structure, Coker said. But any such change “is something utilities are fighting tooth and nail.”

Georgia could also encourage the solar industry by stabilizing tax credits and other programs that support the industry, said Fisher-Quinn. Their constant fluctuation has hindered investment, she said.

Kalina Manoylov, a Georgia College assistant biology professor, said algae has also begun to generate a lot of interest as a renewable energy source in Georgia. She said she has seen permit applications from more than 50 companies that wanted to launch algae biomass facilities over the last four years, but only four are still operating.

“The biggest problem: People want to do business without knowing the organism they’re working on,” she said, noting the many types of algae and how little is understood about how it functions.

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