Another round of hearings in Georgia Power’s rate case ended Thursday with the final day dominated by a debate over whether the utility should expand its popular rooftop solar program.
Georgia Power is pushing for a 12% increase in electricity rates over the next three years, along with other demands over the next year that could force ratepayers to reimburse the company for fuel costs higher and for the snake bit nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle.
The Public Service Commission hearings feature testimony from experts from Georgia Power, consumer advocacy groups, environmental organizations, solar energy groups, government agencies and energy consultants. Next month, state regulators will decide how much more the company can charge its 2.7 million customers.
Starting next year, Georgia Power’s plan would increase monthly rates for residential customers by $14.32 if the five-member PSC approves it. The monthly cost to keep the lights on would reach $16.29 by 2025, or about $200 per year.
In order to shift to cleaner power generation and new technologies, the company plans to invest $12 billion in infrastructure development and increase spending to retire its coal-fired power plants.
The company’s plans for rooftop solar were the dominant theme on Thursday, with Georgia Power opposing the expansion of a popular rooftop solar program while also proposing to add connection fees rooftop solar system of $200 to its customers.
Georgia Power and the commissioners have expressed concerns that some solar companies are misleading customers with false claims such as free solar and electricity.
The company also said its tariff options proposal better ensures that non-solar customers don’t foot the bill for homes powered by solar panels.
Several Georgia Power executives and managers testified at the initial rate hearings in September. Final hearings are scheduled for November 29 and 30 and December 15, with the case to be decided by the commissioners on December 20.
On Thursday, Commissioner Tim Echols asked how the 5,000 customers participating in the behind-the-meter solar program could benefit the rest of Georgia Power’s customers.
Echols proposed a motion in 2019 that led to Georgia Power expanding the rooftop solar program to 5,000 customers, costing relatively little to subsidize. Meanwhile, Georgia Power enjoyed billions of dollars in profits after the PSC approved a higher return on equity and stronger capital structure.
During summer hearings on Georgia Power’s long-term plans, Echols failed to garner the support needed to open the solar program to 75,000 customers. He said he was willing to compromise on that proposal while asking solar experts on Thursday if they could quantify how all customers could benefit from rooftop solar households.
“Is there value for everyone,” Echols asked panelists on hand to make the case for solar power. “The company says no, but is there value, in your opinion?”
“I don’t mind compromising or negotiating if we want to expand it,” Echols later said. “How do we avoid the mistakes that California and others are making? We don’t want to follow them and have to recover in the future.
Kevin Lucas of the Solar Energy Industries Association said Georgia can learn from the experiences of other states on how to deploy rooftop solar in a way that benefits the entire grid.
When there is more solar generation on the grid and when there is less demand on the electrical system, it allows a company to build and plan its infrastructure in a different way, he said.
“Instead of a higher (higher) level, he has to build at a slightly lower level and that means savings, resources he doesn’t have to plan for, facilities he doesn’t have to build, upgrades that he doesn’t have to do,” Lucas said. “He has a monetary value associated with him.”
Larry Legg, director of pricing and tariffs at Georgia Power, said the company advocates switching customers to a tariff that takes into account the cost of solar power. Legg said analysis shows that each net metering customer shifts an average of $1,356 a year in costs onto other customers.
“Georgia Power is a large electric utility that needs to build billions of dollars worth of facilities available to all of our customers whether they use them or not,” he said.
A key concern beyond the rate case is that Georgia Power is expected to seek three additional rate increases over the next year to recoup higher fuel costs and for expenses related to bringing two additional nuclear reactors at Plant online. Vogtle.
University of Georgia engineering professor David Gattie recommended that commissioners not extend the monthly pilot program that compensates solar-generator customers for excess power exported to the grid.
“I make this recommendation for a variety of reasons, including the discrepancy in the value attributed to electricity exported by solar-generator customers on the grid, the lack of consensus on the use of monthly net metering as a policy tool in d other states, and because disproportionately compensating generator-customers as a way to increase solar development is inconsistent with Georgia’s energy policy goals,” Gattie said Thursday.
An impending tariff increase not part of the current proposal is also worrying consumer watchdogs. Georgia Power reached a milestone last month when Plant Vogtle’s third unit went into production.
However, nonprofit consumer advocate Georgia Watch said Thursday that Georgia Power has been collecting billions of dollars in Vogtle-related costs for years. Providing Georgia Power with a higher profit margin would also place a significant financial burden on taxpayers, said Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch.
“Do you know that residential customers have been paying the lion’s share of this tariff since it started collecting in 2011,” Coyle said.