With carbon dioxide levels rising, can we harness the power of the sun before the sound of our future is "Burn, baby, burn?" There's a ray of hope in renewable energy with solar power on the rise.
But Georgia Power's 2013 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) doesn't seem to be giving the sun as much time to shine as local citizens think it deserves.
In last week's meeting at the Coastal Georgia Center, Public Service Commissioner Tim G. Echols stopped by to hear the public's opinion on Georgia Power's 20 year IRP, which will be voted on in July.
Picturing myself in 20 years is hard enough. Taking that picture and putting it on the scale of, oh I don't know, Georgia's future of cleaner and cheaper energy, well... I'll personally need more power to fuel that thought.
But the meeting, organized by the Sierra Club, had enough information and public opinion to showcase just how many people are charged up about Georgia Power's long-term plans for renewable energy.
Seth Gunning, head of Georgia Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, started off the meeting:
"Both the Public Service Commission and Georgia Power and many of the interveners who have been involved in this case this year have stated, and have been sort of emphatic, that this is the most important Integrated Resource Plan that we've seen in a really long time."
Why is it so important? Times are a changin' — that's why. Clean energy is at a crucial transition period and we need to keep our power suppliers in check to make sure that they are investing in the best options.
"Across the country utilities are spending, are getting ready to, or are in the midst of spending hundreds of millions of dollars reinvesting in our electric infrastructure. The coal phase hopefully is aging. Utilities are in the midst of deciding how to reinvest in America's future," said Gunning.
The question is exactly what to invest in for our future. And it's not coal, evidently. Georgia Power plans to close a number of plants with coal units in order to switch them to natural gas.
And while natural gas is cleaner than coal, it still isn't the cleanest option. (While drilling for oil releases carbon dioxide, fracking for natural gas releases methane — which is over a hundred times more harmful than the staggering levels of CO2.)
What many of those in attendance wanted to know was why Georgia Power's IRP is mostly sticking resources where the sun doesn't shine.
Last year, because of an oversubscription for solar power, Georgia Power conducted a lottery to decide which projects would move forward on installation and commercial operation.
Local solar advocate Claudia Collier was the first to approach the mic about this issue:
"If Georgia Power already has more people and businesses asking to fulfill the increased capacity of solar they will purchase for 2013, that they had to resort to a lottery to choose who they would buy these kilowatts from, doesn't this show that Georgia Power should already be planning increases of solar to their 20-year plan to meet our future needs?" Collier asked.
The counter argument is that building solar power plants would be too expensive to provide without starting off with sky-high rates — something most consumers find unappealing.
(When I heard this, I could only think about my father telling me that there is no price to be put on your health or your life.)
But Tybee Island Council Representative Paul Wolff provided a different perspective to providing solar:
"If you truly want to take care of poor people, loan them money or let people purchase these solar panels and encourage distributed energy and let them pay you back with their savings off their electric bills," he said.
This idea is already being used by 16 other states. Why not Georgia?
Could it be because Georgia Power has a monopoly on the state?
At this point in the meeting, political parties and agendas were starting to build on the conversation. The focus shifted from the IRP to questioning the amount of authority Georgia Power has on the issue — down to corporate power instead of power resource.
Roy Lynch, a local environmental activist, transitioned the meeting back on topic:
"We used to have a voracious jackass in charge of the Georgia Legislature and they ate out of all the citizen's pockets. And that jackass was the Democratic institution of the political line of Georgia Power," Lynch said.
"We now have a 100,000 pound voracious [Republican] elephant doing the same thing. And it's not about the color of one's skin, it's not about the label of one's party. It's about green. And it's always been about green."
Commissioner Echols said that "people are building more energy efficient homes and people are conserving more. We do have better heat pumps out there that are more energy efficient. So you're seeing a decreased demand. You're also seeing more renewable energy."
Many citizens are taking matter into their own hands and installing it on their roof. While solar power may be pricey right now, there is a growing trend of private residences hiring contractors to install solar power panels in their home.
Major commercial brands, including Purina, Ikea and Walmart have built solar powered structures in Georgia.
"Well look, if you have big box stores like Walmart doing this and others follow their lead, I think we're going to continue to see decreased demand (from Georgia Power)," said Echols.
So why is Georgia Power's 20-year plan including purchasing and importing wind power from Oklahoma but not focused on developing solar power in this state?
As I flipped through the five D-ring binders that were thousands of pages long I noticed a word repeated in most financial charts — "redacted".
With so much withheld information I can only wonder: Could Georgia Power be focused on getting better rates rather than giving better rates for cleaner energy to its own consumers?
Collier closed her statement by warning Georgia Power that "one way or another people will become more self-sufficient, making our own electricity with technological breakthroughs that are just over the horizon. And this is our energy future. Georgia Power can either accept this or they can fight us every inch of the way."
Every solar-paneled inch of the way.
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