Solar on My Georgia

Donalsonville Pnut Farm Suniva Hannah Solar.jpg

Is the coming together of business-minded Republicans, conservative Tea Partiers and renewable energy advocates down in Georgia a sign of bigger things to come? 

On July 11, Georgia’s Public Service Commission voted to approve a requirement for the state’s largest electric supplier, Georgia Power, to increase the amount of solar energy on its electric grid, by 525 megawatts in 2016. That’s enough solar to power nearly 50,000 Georgia homes.  

This solar installation at a peanut farm in Donalsonville, Georgia was built using Suniva solar panels manufactured in Norcross. Suniva recently announced it is hiring 50 new workers, thanks to increased demand for solar power.

This is big victory for Georgians, who will start seeing a number of new solar projects in their state.  This means more solar on schools, like this school in Dublin.  It means more jobs in solar manufacturing, like Suniva’s announcement to hire fifty new workers in Norcross. It means more rural utilities purchasing solar, like Cobb EMC

But it also might say a little something about our ever-changing country.  All too often, Americans are divided, with issues and people regarded as either red or blue.  Actions like this show how renewable energy can unite us. Yesterday, a photo on an Atlanta newspaper website showed Tea Partiers and members of the Sierra Club cheering together to support of the ruling.  And keep in mind, this was an all-Republican Public Service Commission voting 3-2 in favor of solar energy.

The fact is, support for clean energy cuts across party lines—something pollsters have been finding for years—and this is making itself increasingly evident in the public square. It’s growing in places like Arizona, where Republican Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the conservative icon, is spearheading a campaign called Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed (TUSK), to stop utilities from limiting homeowners’ ability to sell power back to the electric grid. TUSK even uses an elephant in its logo, just like the Republican Party. That support is evident, too, in places like Kansas and North Carolina. In those states this year, Republican-dominated legislatures turned back efforts to overturn the state renewable energy standards that are driving much of the clean energy growth across America. This was true despite a major disinformation campaign by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and other powerful, fossil-fuel-industry-backed groups. 

Why are some of renewable energy’s biggest recent successes being led by those on the right side of the political spectrum? The answer may simply be that increasing numbers of Republicans are comfortable publicly embracing the very American idea that clean energy is good for all of us. It’s good for farmers who lease their land for wind turbines, and for professors who save money on energy by putting solar panels on their roofs. It’s good for blue-collar workers who weatherize homes and manufacture energy-efficient light bulbs, and for white-collar workers who finance these projects and products.  It’s good for roofers- and electricians-turned-solar installers, who’ve helped make solar power one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S., with almost 14,000 new jobs last year alone. (The industry now employs almost 120,000 overall.) We Americans may not all agree on the policies that make our air and water clean, but we can definitely agree on some of the solutions that get us there. 

A few details of yesterday’s Georgia decision are worth noting. The vote was initiated and led by a pro-business Republican PSC commissioner, Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, who, on his own tab, last winter traveled to Germany with a group of Georgia solar developers to meet with power executives there and learn how the overcast country manages to get 10 percent or more of its power from solar. In  advance of the vote, McDonald wrote in an op-ed in the Athens Banner-Herald: “Who can predict the price of these fuels”—coal, natural gas, oil or nuclear power—“four years, or 20 years, from now? I can’t. I do know, though, that there is no cost for fuel from the sun, and I know that the sun’s power will still be free 40 years from now.”

McDonald’s PSC proposal for increased solar was strongly supported by Tea Party groups in Georgia, which made for an awkward confrontation when the Georgia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, largely funded by fossil-fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch, strenuously opposed the measure. Its chapter president sent out an email and twitter post to its members that included blatant inaccuracies about McDonald’s proposal: “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 electronic gadget in your home?” Virginia Galloway originally wrote.  In an interview for an AP article, Galloway later acknowledged “that the pending proposal would "probably not" raise bills by 40 percent, though she said cost increases are possible.” (And the truth is, state renewable energy standards just don’t have much impact on electricity prices overall).

In this age of hyper-partisanship, let’s celebrate the coming together of at least some of the nation, under the sun. I look forward to more decisions like the Georgia PSC’s soon.