The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported Monday that Georgia State Senator, Buddy Carter, withdrew his proposal for a bill that would have bolstered the use of solar energy in this state because he believed it did not have enough votes to pass.  This is sad news to the solar industry in Georgia and to really anyone that is not Georgia Power or an existing utility company in this state.

Senate Bill 401 was introduced in February to encourage private investment in renewable solar energy by allowing individuals and companies to finance solar installations on their property through private power purchase agreements (PPAs).  PPAs work like this:  a solar company owns and installs the solar panels that are placed on the customer’s property (usually rooftop installations).  The customer either leases the solar equipment from the solar company for a monthly fee, or enters into a PPA to make regular payments to the installer based upon the amount of energy that will be generated.

PPAs are the most common form of financing for these projects because they typically involve significant up-front capital costs.  Many other states, particularly those with Renewable Energy Portfolios, allow the use of PPAs for solar and other renewable energy projects.

The reason they are not currently allowed in Georgia is because a Georgia law, known as the “Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act,” limits the sale of power to regulated utilities like Georgia Power and local EMCs.   Under the current state of the law, anyone can purchase and install their own solar panels to produce electricity for themselves.  But, they can’t rent the panels from a third party, buy the power generated from the panels from a third party, or sell the excess energy created from their panels to a third party.

It’s hard to believe that anyone would oppose to a bill that would encourage investment in renewable energy and foster a burgeoning industry that is bringing good jobs to this state.   It just makes sense to use one of the state’s most abundant resources—sunshine—to reduce demand from coal and gas-based energy plants and create jobs at the same time.  But, as predicted, Georgia Power has put up a vigorous fight and is lobbying hard to defeat this bill at all costs.  Georgia Power and existing utilities are heavily invested in coal and gas-based energy plants, and they do not want to see a reduction in demand and revenue due to these PPAs.

The fact that Senator Carter has pulled the bill for lack of votes means that Georgia Power is currently a louder voice in the legislative ears than the solar industry and advocates for green energy.  In order for this bill to have any real chance of becoming law in 2012, it must pass the senate by Wednesday in order to be sent to the House for consideration.

If you support renewable energy and solar-friendly legislation, then you should contact your representatives right away to urge them to vote for the passage of SB 401.  Otherwise, the expansion of solar energy in Georgia will be delayed for at least another year.  That’s a lot of sun that we will have missed out on!

The Green Building Chronicle reported yesterday that a bill restoring the solar energy tax credit has hit a dead-end in the Georgia legislature. The bill—HB 146—would have restored funding for the credits through 2014 and would have increased the total funds available for the credits from $2.5 million per year to $10 million per year for 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Last year, it seemed like Georgia was turning a corner on its conservative approach to energy policies. First, there was the decision of the Public Service Commission announced that it approved an increase in the amount of solar energy purchased by Georgia Power—effectively doubling the amounts that had been allowed previously. Then, the citizens of Georgia voted for a constitutional amendment to allow state agencies to enter into energy savings performance contracts. It looked like Georgia was serious about reducing energy demands and increasing alternative energy production. So, what happened?

Some believe that the solar tax credits were re-prioritized because the legislature has been focused on proposals to make sweeping changes to the Georgia tax code in an effort to make Georgia more competitive in attracting businesses to move here while maintaining revenue needed for the budget.

Granted, that is a compelling issue for policy makers. But, if we believe that we must reform the tax code to entice businesses to come to Georgia, then isn’t it equally important to include tax credits that support and promote the businesses that are already here?

Georgia has a budding solar industry that includes solar manufacturers, installers and vendors. These businesses are here now—employing Georgians and paying taxes. As alternative energy becomes more prevalent, these companies will continue to grow and become an even more important part of our state economy. We want them to stay here and grow here. One way to support these businesses is by funding tax credits that promote their industry.

There is another good reason for the solar tax credits. Georgia has some of the greatest solar capacity of any state in the U.S. We should be a leader in solar energy production and a model for states trying to reduce energy costs and reliance upon fossil fuels. Instead, we lag behind states like Pennsylvania, which has used energy policies and tax credits to develop a highly successful solar energy program despite the fact that its solar capacity is significantly less than Georgia.

Does anyone see a downside to increasing solar energy production in Georgia?

Most people would never associate NASCAR with renewable energy.  I think it’s a long way off before solar or biofuel technology is advanced enough to power engines that will allow cars to travel at speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour for hundreds of miles.  I will admit that I have never been a big fan of NASCAR or any other racing sports programs, but when I race across this Chicago Tribune article about a 3-megawatt solar installation at the Pocono Raceway, I had to post it and comment.  I thought it was particularly relevant in light of my last post about the latest developments in solar energy programs in Georgia.

I am a little impressed that an industry that is wholly based upon consuming large quantities of fossil fuels is at least trying to minimize its impact on the environment by embracing alternative energy sources for its stadiums.  It’s this kind of innovation that promotes renewable energy projects and increases public awareness of the benefits and effectiveness of solar projects.

As a quick tie-back to my last post, this project underscores the argument for lifting restrictions or caps on the amount of solar energy that is sold back to the grid and/or for allowing power purchase agreements (PPAs):

The solar field will yield enough power to cover all the racing complex’s energy needs — the garages, concession stands, offices, spectator suites and media rooms — with enough left over to feed 1,000 homes.

The track hosts two annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series summer events, each of which attracts more than 100,000 fans. It also is used by car clubs, driving schools and auto dealerships. During winter, when Pocono is essentially shut down, nearly all the power coming from its solar array will go into the grid for use elsewhere.

Keep in mind that this one project generates 3 megawatts of solar power, which is more than the current cap on the amount of solar power Georgia Power purchases from all private solar installations in the state (2.5 megawatts).

Another key point I picked up from the article was the fact that with the 30% tax credit and state alternative-energy incentives, the project will pay for itself in 6 to 8 years.  That’s the kind of return on investment that really makes these projects worthwhile and cost-effective.

Since the South arguably (and I say arguably, not definitely) has more sun and more NASCAR fans than Pennsylvania, let’s see if we can get some of our southern NASCAR fans and stadiums to embrace this same enthusiasm for solar energy.

Last week, I attended the Southern Solar Summit presented by the Georgia Solar Energy Association (GSEA).  Public Service Commission Chairman Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, Jr. gave the key note address and remarked about how far solar energy initiatives have come in Georgia in the past year, which isn’t saying much given where it started.

But, what he did say that was of interest to everyone in attendance was that the PSC is expected to approve Georgia Power’s proposal to effectively double its purchases of solar energy from private producers—up to 5 megawatts.  This is up from 2.5 megawatts that is currently purchased by Georgia Power, and up from 500 kilowatts that it purchased just two years ago.  Additionally, Georgia Power plans to build 1 MW of solar capacity from its own panels.

Many have argued that Georgia is not solar-friendly because of laws (specifically, the Territorial Act) that prevent anyone other than public utilities from selling power to customers.  This means that parties with excess solar energy may not sell it to any other party—the only option is to sell it back to the grid and that amount is capped by regulation.  Moreover, Georgia Power will only pay for solar power from proceeds it receives from customers paying extra for Green Power.  Solar power purchases are not included in the regular rates.

Other states that are known for their solar-friendly policies allow solar energy to be bought and sold through power purchase agreements (PPAs).  Under a PPA, a commercial building owner may contract with a provider to install solar panels on its rooftop (or other location) and the building owner simply purchases the power generated from the solar panels from the provider—usually at a rate less than the power purchased from public utilities.  The Territorial Act prevents parties in Georgia from entering into PPAs, effectively making Georgia Power the only customer of solar power in the state.  Instead, the building owner would have to make the capital expenditure to purchase and install the solar panels and would then own the power produced by the panels—but would not be able to sell to any other party the excess energy that is produced by its solar installation.

It remains to be seen whether this increase in the cap on solar power purchased by Georgia Power will actually correlate to an increase in solar projects around the state.  One thing is certain…if it does not, there is still plenty more Georgia can do to promote solar energy production here.

BONUS: Check out Beth Bond’s Tweet Diary from the Southern Solar Summit with a list of takeaways and important information.