By Greg Bluestein and Kristi E. Swartz
State regulators forced Georgia Power on Thursday to expand the amount of solar energy it generates, putting the company on the rare losing side of a political battle. But the vote was just a skirmish compared with bigger battles ahead for the powerful utility.
It faces a double-whammy of upcoming votes before the Public Service Commission on approving new costs for its nuclear expansion project and a proposed 6 percent rate hike to fund new equipment. And a legislative fight looms over a proposal to create a new solar monopoly that could challenge Georgia Power’s grip on state utilities.
The all-Republican commission’s 3-2 vote was a significant defeat for the Atlanta-based company, which had warned it already generated more than enough energy for its customers. Opponents also said that adding 525 megawatts of solar by 2016 would inevitably drive up rates, although Georgia Power, in a surprising about-face, backed off that argument on Thursday after months of making that case. Instead, its attorney said for the first time that the added solar likely wouldn’t affect power bills.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s vote, the odd coalition of environmentalists, conservatives and solar startups behind the expansion barely paused to savor their win. Some emboldened activists said the victory gave them new hope they could successfully challenge the utility on other contentious issues.