Georgia Power says closing coal plant won't make room for solar

ATLANTA — Executives from Georgia Power Co. on Wednesday rejected the idea that closing a coal-fired power plant would open up capacity for generating electricity from solar panels.

They were responding to questions from Stan Wise, one of the five members of the Public Service Commission who will vote Thursday on the utility’s 20-year plan. Normally, plan approval is fairly routine when it comes up every three years, but this year, it has become the focus of debate about whether the state’s largest electric utility should rely more on renewable energy sources.

“I think this is so weighty that we had to have this to make sure that I knew all that I needed to know going into tomorrow,” Wise said.

Environmental groups have advocated for more solar since Georgia Power submitted its plan before months of formal hearings. In recent days, conservative organizations, including some affiliated with the tea party movement, have weighed in – but on opposite sides.

The PSC members, who are the least-known of the statewide elected officials, have been bombarded by e-mails and phone calls. The sides plan separate Capitol Hill rallies before the vote.

Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald is expected to propose an amendment to Georgia Power’s plan to require it to double the amount of solar generation it can access. Although that would still amount to less than 2 percent of all of the company’s generation, Wise says that the utility already has 25 percent more capacity than it expects to use on its busiest day.

He invited company executives to discuss whether ending its contract for electricity with an Alabama Power plant would be a way to increase solar without adding to the expense of further overcapacity.

Kyle Leach, Georgia Power’s director of resource planning, said conventional power plants are needed to step in when the sun isn’t shining. He said solar panels on the company’s headquarters skyscraper last summer operated only 80 percent of the daytime because of clouds and rain.

Converting the Alabama plant to burn natural gas makes it functional any time, he said.

“It is able to generate on call from our operations center in Birmingham 365 days a year, 24 hours a day and seven days a week,” Leach said. “… Everyone knows Mother Nature decides when solar produces and solar output can vary significantly throughout the day, throughout the season.”

When solar is producing, it does so more cheaply than most other electricity plants, which can sit idle until needed, Leach said.

Wise summed it up, “You’ve got all the costs associated with it whether you use it or not.”

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