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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Critics' numbers misleading in Georgia solar fight

Associated Press
Jaime Henry-White
Solar panels cover cars parked in a lot nearby Centennial Olympic Park, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Atlanta. The Georgia chapter of Americans For Prosperity, founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, wants Georgia's utility regulators to reject a solar energy plan in Georgia. But an Associated Press review ahead of a vote on the issue finds that it has used misleading figures to build its case. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)
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ATLANTA — A political group founded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch wants Georgia’s utility regulators to reject a plan requiring Southern Co. to buy more solar energy, but an Associated Press review finds it has used misleading figures to build its case.

The Georgia chapter of Americans For Prosperity has said in mass e-mails that a proposal requiring Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power to buy more solar energy could raise energy bills by 40 percent. A review shows the claim is misleading, and there’s a debate over how much solar energy might cost.
Georgia’s Public Service Commission will meet next week to vote on the utility’s plan for meeting Georgia’s energy needs for the next two decades. Georgia Power has already agreed to add 270 megawatts of solar energy to its system and did not propose adding more in its latest plan. Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr. wants a vote on a plan requiring Georgia Power to add an additional 525 megawatts of solar energy.

McDonald’s plan has support from a group of solar developers earlier spurned by Georgia Power.

“It’s an opportunity for the consumers,” McDonald said. “It’s an opportunity to utilize what God has given us, and that’s the sun.”

The Georgia chapter of Americans For Prosperity says McDonald’s plan will raise costs.

Solar power has historically been pricier than fossil fuel sources for around-the-clock energy, though costs have fallen and developers argue it is now more competitive. Better figures will emerge once Geor­gia Power signs contracts as part of earlier pushes to obtain solar power. The company expects to pay no more, if not less, for that solar power than it would pay to get it elsewhere, spokesman John Kraft said.

Even if costs are higher, the total solar power that has been proposed or added to Georgia Power’s system is the equivalent of 1 percent of its electric fleet, according to AP calculations based on the capacity of the company’s power plants and a federal study predicting how different types of power plants can produce electricity. It is unlikely so small a resource could have a 40 percent impact on monthly bills.

In an e-mail to supporters, Virginia Galloway, the Geor­gia director for Amer­icans for Prosperity, wrote, “What if I told you something you’re not even hearing about in the news is about to raise your electricity bill by more than 40 percent and reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home? That’s what will happen when your Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) votes on July 11th if you don’t take action today!”

Galloway cited a study by the Institute for Energy Research showing that customers in states that require utilities to buy renewable energy paid an average of 39 percent more than customers in states without those rules, such as Georgia.

That is not an exact comparison because many factors influence prices. The demand for energy and the available supply affect prices, as does weather. So does choice: In some places, consumers can pick their own electricity provider. And renewable energy requirements vary greatly among the states that have them.

“It’s hard to say it would be fair to apply that across the board,” said Liz Coyle, the deputy director of Geor­gia Watch, a consumer advocacy group that supports renewable energy but is wary of consumer cost increases.

Galloway acknowledged that the pending proposal would “probably not” raise bills by 40 percent, though she said cost increases are possible. She said Georgia Power already has too much spare electric capacity – a point raised independently by other observers – and said government mandates can create extra expenses in the long run.

“I don’t think that everyone should be forced to pay more for a questionable thing,” she said.

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