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Clean air plan to push Georgia toward solar, nuclear alternatives

ATLANTA -- When President Barack Obama announced last week the first set of nationwide rules that will cut carbon dioxide pollution from power plants, Georgia was told to make cuts of about 34 percent, roughly in line with its neighboring states.

But its biggest effect may be to accelerate changes already underway in the state.

The same day the federal Environmental Protection Agency published the Clean Power Plan, Georgia’s would-be solar farmers were scrambling to complete their bids for a big upcoming Georgia Power solar buy. Meanwhile, workers were on site expanding a nuclear plant below Augusta, and Plant Branch, an old coal power plant at Lake Sinclair, was in mothballs.

By the EPA’s math, in 2012 every megawatt-hour of Georgia electricity also generated 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide. Scientists say carbon dioxide is a cause of climate change.

By 2030, Georgia needs to cut that to 1,049 pounds.

There’s already grumbling in some quarters about the rule. Both Georgia Power and its regulators, the elected Georgia Public Service Commission, have said it unfairly limits local control.

They and other state leaders are the ones who have to decide how to make the cuts.

The new nuclear reactors being added at Plant Vogtle, the site on the Savannah River south of Augusta, will make enough power for more than 500,000 homes and businesses each year, without the carbon footprint of coal.

But there also is a burgeoning solar industry in Georgia, the result of a few years of changes from state regulators and utilities, as well as the declining cost to install solar on a large or small scale. The national Solar Energy Industries Association calculates that the national average cost to install a watt of solar capacity fell by more than half between 2005 and 2014.

“We are rapidly approaching 1 gigawatt of solar energy in production statewide, which is amazing to think about considering we had less than 20 megawatts in production just three years ago,” said Sharon Lee, chairwoman of the Georgia Solar Energy Association.

It takes 1,000 megawatts to make one gigawatt. The nuclear expansion at Vogtle will total more than 2 gigawatts.

A few days after the federal Clean Power Plan was published, electrician Jeff Rickman said it’s possible his Gray-based company, Greenergy Electric, might see an uptick in the residential-scale solar projects his company handles in between conventional electric jobs.

But the prospect of new business he’s anticipating comes from a law change in Atlanta, not Washington.

The price tag to move a house onto solar energy and at least partially off the electric grid starts in the $20,000 range, which includes the price of the panels.

“Up until now it’s been pretty much self-financed, and that’s been a barrier to entry for a lot of people,” Rickman said.

But now Georgia law will allow solar installers to offer financing through a third party. It’s a practice already legal in some states, and it took two years to pass in Georgia.

Bill Elliott has solar panels at his 2,500-square-foot home in Moultrie.

He is careful to say that he sets his thermostat at 85 degrees during the day when he is away, but his power bill is still impressively low.

“I just got my bill. It was $16.98,” he said.

The panels won’t take him off the grid, because he still needs power at night. But what it saves him on his monthly bill, plus a bit extra that he sells back to the grid, mean cash savings over time, he said.

Elliott is a bit of a solar evangelist. He’s a regional business development manager at Hannah Solar, a major Atlanta-based solar developer.

The company has helmed utility-scale developments across the state, and Georgia Power is buying some of that juice under a multi-year project called the Advanced Solar Initiative. By the end of 2016, once all the contracts are awarded and work is finished, the utility will have procured 745 megawatts of power through the project, bringing the company’s total solar programs to nearly 1 gigawatt.

A couple of things have nudged Georgia toward solar. The carbon rule has long been on the horizon. And as solar technology improves, the cost has fallen far enough to satisfy the price-conscious conservatives at the Public Service Commission.

Right now, it’s not clear if Georgia Power will make another major solar push.

“We have not announced another round of the (Advanced Solar Initiative) program at this time,” company spokesman John O’Brien said in a written statement. “However, we continue to consider opportunities to add cost-effective renewable generation as part of a diverse portfolio.”

Elliott says he still sees opportunities for new solar installations that are big enough to run commercial or public buildings. Electricity rates vary across the state. In the highest-price areas, buyers who can also qualify for third-party financing and state and federal tax breaks have the most to gain from solar, he said.

“The higher the kilowatt cost, the better it is for your return if you invest in solar,” he said.

But the plan is certainly not without its critics.

The five PSC members released a joint statement when the plan came out, saying they praise the EPA for some of the changes they made from an earlier draft of the plan, such as extending the deadline and giving the state more credit for nuclear. But they said the plan still ties their hands and limits their choices in a way that will make electricity pricier and less reliable.

In a separate, individual editorial, commission Chairman Tim Echols added that he thinks “we’re on the right track without a punitive, overreaching federal rule that usurps state authority and mandates accelerated investment.”

Echols also predicted that as much U.S. coal will still be excavated and burned in dirty overseas plants instead of at home, thereby making carbon pollution worse globally.

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