POLITICS

Solar industry is a top donor in Georgia PSC elections

This isn't a story about large utility interests pouring thousands of dollars into Georgia Public Service commissioners' re-election campaigns.

That is because the money is coming from the solar industry this time.

Incumbents Doug Everett and Lauren "Bubba" McDonald have received more than $14,000 from individual solar companies, national and state solar industry groups, lobbyists, contractors, and associated attorneys, according to campaign disclosures from the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

Some of those same companies and individuals also have donated more than $3,000 to two of the sitting commissioners who aren't up for re-election right now, according to the agency, formerly known as the state ethics commission.

"Most members of the Georgia PSC have been incredibly thoughtful in their efforts to advance affordable solar energy to the benefit of consumers. I, along with many others, believe they deserve to continue their good work," said Pete Corbett, president and chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association and an executive with First Century Energy and its subsidiary, SolAmerica Energy LLC.

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Georgia's PSC is one of just a few utility regulators that is elected. Its commissioners are used to environmental and consumer advocates criticizing them for receiving thousands in donations from executives, lobbyists and lawyers connected with the state's major utilities, natural gas and telephone companies.

Some of those individuals have contributed to current campaign coffers, but this is the first time donations from the solar industry have figured so prominently.

"As solar technology becomes more and more affordable, Georgia has emerged as a national solar energy leader," said Jason Rooks, a lobbyist for the Georgia SEIA. "The PSC's thoughtful leadership on solar issues has allowed the free market to work for the consumer's benefit, and just like any other individuals or organizations engaged in the political process, we want to support candidates that share our views. "

Representatives from SEIA, a national trade group, are on the list of recent givers. Lobbyists and companies under the Georgia chapter contributed as well, either as individuals or from their corporations.

Solar's vested interests

Paying attention to state utility regulators typically doesn't rank high on many priority lists. Yet, the people who are elected or appointed to be utility regulators decide how much homeowners and businesses pay their electric, natural gas and landline phone companies every month.

Campaign donations usually come from industry executives, employees and their contractors, lobbyists or lawyers because they have a vested business interest in the outcome of the PSC's votes. It's rare to see donations from someone who doesn't have a personal or professional connection to the regulators.

Now, with Georgia's solar industry seeing $189 million in investments in 2013, 150 companies and 2,600 jobs, others are paying attention.

"This is a race that gets largely ignored. It's even more important that the support comes from those who are aware of how important the Public Service Commission is, too," said Pete Marte, CEO of Atlanta-based Hannah Solar, one of the local contributors.

Marte, whom the White House honored last week as one of 10 "Champions for Change" for his efforts to promote and expand solar development (EnergyWire, April 17), said his company gave money because the commissioners "are supporting our industry at a time when we are a nascent industry."

"I think Bubba has done great things for the state and for the industry," Marte said. "Doug has really come along" on solar issues, he added.

Georgia's solar industry got a boost, in part, because the PSC signed off on a program for Georgia Power to buy 210 megawatts of solar from rooftop arrays and large solar farms.

The program, approved in 2012, was expanded last year when the commission voted on Georgia Power's long-term energy plan.

First Century Energy and Hannah Solar were two of several contributors that were awarded solar contracts from Georgia Power's program. Depending on the project's size, the contracts were selected either by a lottery system or from a bid process overseen by an independent evaluator.

The PSC's decisions that helped expand Georgia's solar industry may not be as important as what lies ahead.

Regulators are expected to take up the value of solar at some point this year. This issue is critical because it will dictate how much the utilities will pay for solar, how much the solar companies receive, and whether homeowners and businesses that have solar arrays should pay a tariff to cover the costs of backup electricity when those panels aren't working.

The Georgia PSC also gets continued pressure to help open up the market for private solar companies to compete. They have left that argument up to the Legislature, but it's likely the agency will be charged with implementing changes, if there are any.

Turnaround

Everett, who is seeking his third six-year term on the PSC, admittedly turned a deaf ear to solar as recently as two years ago. At the time, costs to make and install solar technology were still relatively high.

The PSC also was focused on Georgia Power's quest to build the nation's first two nuclear reactors from scratch in three decades as well as figure out a way to transition from coal.

Everett said he wants to serve on the PSC when the Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion project starts producing electricity, currently scheduled for 2017 and 2018. He said he considers Vogtle one of the best things for Georgia's energy future, but he realizes that solar has its place in that mix, too.

"Two years ago, I was dead set against solar," Everett told EnergyWire. "The costs started coming down, it started making sense, and I saw what solar could do and how it could help the state of Georgia."

McDonald, his longtime friend and colleague, was already there. In 2011, McDonald ordered Georgia Power to figure out a way to add 50 MW of solar to the grid.

Last year, when Georgia Power told regulators it didn't need to add generation for several years, McDonald's response was a plan to add 525 MW of mostly utility-scale solar over the next couple of years.

The political move was not without controversy, and McDonald as well as the utility refuse to call it a mandate, in reference to other states that have requirements to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable fuels.

The additional solar means Georgia Power will have more than 800 MW of solar from rooftop arrays and large solar farms under contract by 2016.

"We are setting the tone," McDonald said of the PSC.

As veteran politicians, Everett and McDonald are so used to routine inquiries about their campaign disclosures that they had answers even before the questions were asked.

"Every penny of it came after all of the votes," Everett said, referring to the commission's 3-2 decision last July to add 525 MW of solar to Georgia Power's electricity mix.

"I have not personally solicited any funds from any of the solar industry myself," McDonald said. "I have been the recipient and am thankful that they stepped up to the plate. It costs money to run a campaign."

McDonald also has three opponents. Two are Republican. One is a Democrat. Georgia's primary is May 20, but the three Republican candidates are scheduled to debate on Tuesday as part of a series organized by the Atlanta Press Club that will air on public television.

Twitter: @BizWriterKristi | Email: kswartz@eenews.net

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