With partisan politics trumping science-based solutions all too often these days, it's especially heartening when people overcome political differences to let solid data point the way toward practical solutions. That's what happened in Georgia last month when state regulators voted to require Georgia Power -- the state's sole investor-owned electricity provider -- to expand the use of solar power in its energy mix.
Regulators on the all-Republican commission voted 3-2 in favor of a plan that requires Atlanta-based Georgia Power Co. to increase its solar power capacity by 525 megawatts by the end of 2016. The decision comes on the heels of the announcement that Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co., is planning to retire more than 2,000 megawatts worth of coal-fired generating capacity.
The vote in Georgia is notable not just for the commonsense outcome of adding more cost-effective renewable energy in a state ranked fifth in the nation for solar potential but just 21st for installed solar capacity. The real surprise here, after more than a year of often acrimonious debate, is the nearly unprecedented coalition that made the decision possible -- a mixture of not just environmentalists and solar advocates but also conservative lawmakers and Tea Party members.
The latter groups in particular had to face down a barrage of misinformation from Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an organization founded and underwritten by the billionaire Koch brothers, whose predecessor organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, virtually founded the Tea Party itself. AFP's Georgia chapter mounted a scare campaign against solar power in Georgia that, as usual, supported the Koch's bottom line as fossil fuel magnates even as it played fast and loose with the facts.
Virginia Galloway, director of AFP's Georgia chapter, for instance, warned the group's 50,000 members that the solar proposal would "reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home" and could increase Georgia electricity rates by up to 40 percent. As the Associated Press pointed out, neither of these claims bore much resemblance to the truth. In fact, at the hearing before the vote, Kevin Greene, Georgia Power's attorney, said that the utility didn't believe the solar requirement would cause any increase in electricity prices for ratepayers.
All of which underscores the really surprising part: even the Tea Party faithful didn't seem to be buying the AFP line this time around. Despite the mass emails, handouts, and phone calls put out by AFP's Georgia chapter, when the group held a protest during the Public Service Commission deliberations, hardly anyone showed up.
What's more, a separate branch of the Tea Party in Georgia, known as the Tea Party Patriots, came out strongly in favor of more solar power in the state. Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots told the press: "AFP Georgia is putting out absolutely false data," that doesn't take into account the fact that "solar prices have plummeted" in recent years. Dooley quipped that her group was forming "a Green Tea Coalition" because it saw the proposed solar expansion as a free market issue that "gives consumers more choice."
Solar Power is Growing for Good Reason
Michael Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the facts in the energy sector speak for themselves. As Georgia regulators wisely recognized, he says, the price of coal has risen, while prices for solar panels have dropped some 60 percent since 2011.
The fact is, solar has been one of the nation's fastest growing industries for the past several years, now supporting more than 100,000 jobs at 5,600 companies operating in every state in the nation. With the rate of utility solar installations more than doubling since 2012, the United States is now on track to add another 4,400 megawatts of photovoltaic power in 2013.
All of which has been noted with considerable alarm by some electric utilities. A recent report distributed by the Edison Electric Institute, the industry's main trade group, for instance, calls the growth of small-scale solar systems the "largest near-term threat" to the industry and warns of a disruption to the industry similar to the one wrought by cell phones on the landline telephone industry.
Next up: Arizona
In a number of states recently, utilities have sought to fight back by charging extra fees to customers with rooftop solar panels. Moves to change so-called net metering arrangements were notably beaten back this spring in both Louisiana and Idaho -- hardly states known for liberal politics or environmental activism.
The latest battleground is Arizona, where the state's largest electric utility -- Arizona Public Service Company -- has similarly asked regulators to raise electric rates for residential customers who install solar photovoltaic systems at their homes. And, as in Georgia, the battle lines are forging some surprising alliances. In this case, Barry Goldwater, Jr. the son of the late politician who served five terms in the U.S. Senate and whose name is practically synonymous with conservatism in America, is among those leading the fight for solar power in his state, heading a recently formed organization called TUSK -- "Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed."
Jacobs notes that the populist nature of rooftop solar power seems to be causing a paradigm shift in many people's political perspective. "Instead of being forced to buy power from a monopoly, people now have a real option to go buy rooftop solar panels as they would a television or a refrigerator. There's no question," he says, "that this aspect is particularly appealing to a segment of the population that prefers the free market and doesn't want utilities or government to mandate what they do."
While Koch-funded groups like AFP are unlikely to heed the message anytime soon, there is every indication in the solar energy field that the political terrain is starting to shift dramatically.
Seth Shulman, Senior Staff Writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a veteran science journalist and author of six books whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. You can sign up to receive his monthly Got Science? column via email at the Union of Concerned Scientists website: www.ucsusa.org.