Georgia regulator backs subsidy for solar power



ATLANTA — One of the state’s top utility regulators said Tuesday that he would support charging Georgia Power customers up to an extra nickel each month to build more solar energy projects and even debate whether Georgia should force the company to buy more renewable energy – a position that’s been politically unpopular in the Southeast.

Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bub­ba” McDonald, a Republican, surprised other members of the commission when he announced his political change of heart at a public hearing. He previously called on Geor­gia Power, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Co., to add 50 megawatts of solar electricity in its portfolio. That’s equivalent to just more than 2 percent of the electricity that would be produced from the nuclear reactors the company hopes to build near Augusta.

“I’m just trying to stir the pot and get us looking outside the box,” McDonald said in an interview where he described his proposal for a maximum 5-cent monthly solar charge. “That’s a position that three years ago, I would have said, ‘No.’ ”

Under McDonald’s proposal, the extra money collected to subsidize solar power would bridge the gap between what Georgia Power is willing to pay for the solar electricity that it distributes to customers and the prices that solar developers say they need to make a reasonable profit.

It is not clear whether his idea will find much support. PSC Commissioner Stan Wise, a Republican, said he hoped the plan was dead on arrival. He said he would oppose the proposal even if it was necessary for Georgia Power to follow through on McDonald’s request that it add 50 megawatts of solar energy to its power system.

One megawatt is enough energy to power roughly 400 homes.

“If we start to feel like we need to sweeten the pot, we’re not going there,” Wise said.

Georgia Power spokeswoman Lynn Wal­lace said in a written statement that the company was willing to expand its use of solar power where it was cost effective. The company opposes any plans that would force it to buy renewable power, a concept commonly called a renewable portfolio standard.

“We are opposed to a renewable portfolio standard due to the fact that it imposes mandates on types of generation without regard to economics,” Wallace said.

McDonald gave conflicting signals on whether he would support a law requiring Georgia Power to buy set quantities of renewable energy, a proposal that has repeatedly failed to win political support across the Southeast.

Among the states in the region, only North Carolina has set such a rule for its power companies. Opponents have argued that the South lacks enough cheap renewable power to meet the requirements without increasing prices for customers.