Solar power gets cheaper, more popular in Georgia

Georgia Power adds more nuclear, solar generation to offset cuts in coal

In this June 13, 2014, file photo, construction continues on a new nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle power plant in Waynesboro, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
photo Tim Echols

While finishing the first of the next generation nuclear reactors built in America, Georgia Power Co. is planning to add a gigawatt of solar power generation in the next three years as it shutters five more coal-fired units under its 3-year power plan submitted to state regulators.

But regulators are likely to push Georgia's biggest utility to do even more with solar generation while bringing on two more units at its Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant.

During a visit to Chattanooga Monday, Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols said the price of solar continues to get cheaper and, when combined with federal tax credits for renewable energy, is cheaper than the power it is replacing.

"Solar is a low-cost alternative" with the 30% investment tax credit for new solar generation, said Echols, who has argued to maintain the tax credit to spur more of the clean, renewable power. "It continues to get cheaper all the time and with the prospect of battery storage it should continue to grow as a power source in Georgia."

Echols, who has supported Georgia Power Co. finishing the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactors for units 3 and 4 at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia, said the projected $27 billion price tag for the new nuclear units wouldn't be justified today. But when the reactors were begun, Georgia Power expected to finish the units for about $10 billion and natural gas prices were far higher.

"If we were deciding today, I don't think we would decide to build these units (at Plant Vogtle.) because natural gas and solar are so cheap today," he said. "But in 2007 and 2008 when it was approved, natural gas was more than double what it is today and at that time it was a good decision."

Echols said finishing Plant Vogtle makes economic sense given the investment already made and the projected long-term benefits of having another two reactors at Plant Vogtle, of which Dalton Utilities also owns a 1.6% share.

Echols recently visited the sites of the four AP1000 reactors now operating in China. "I was so impressed and I came back and told my fellow commissioners, this is doable," he said.

The Tennessee Valley Authority once planned to build America's first AP1000 reactors at its Bellefonte plant in Alabama, but later scrapped those plans. TVA also is boosting the share of its power generated by the sun, and its long-range power plan for the next 20 years foresees the addition of between 4 and 9 gigawatts of solar generation.

A unit of SCANA Corp., and state-owned Santee Cooper abandoned their plans for two of the AP1000 reactors at the V.C. Summer plant in 2017 after investing $9 billion in the units. Echols said he believes scrapping those units at that time was a mistake.

Georgians have already paid $4.4 billion toward the interest expenses for the new Plant Vogtle units, but most of the costs for the new reactors at Plant Vogtle will be brought into the rate base when the units are up and running and deemed to be commercial reactors. That will likely push up rates 6% or more above the increases already authorized to pay interest on the mounting debt for the new reactors. But Echols said Georgia power rates will still remain well below the U.S. average.

The utility also absorbed some of the cost overruns at Plant Vogtle. Georgia Power last year when it recorded a pre-tax charge of $1.11 billion, or $800 million after taxes.

In its integrated resource plan now being reviewed by the Georgia Public Service Commission, Georgia Power is proposing to shutter four coal units at Plant Hammond near Rome, Georgia, and one coal unit at Plant McIntosh near Rincon in southeast Georgia as the utility seeks to reduce its carbon footprint and air pollution. Under the proposed plan, the company's total renewable energy capacity would increase to 18%.

Allen Reaves, senior vice president and senior production officer at Georgia Power, said the new power plan offers a more diverse mixture of generation.

"We have invested in a diverse energy mix of nuclear, natural gas, hydro, renewables, coal and energy efficiency resources in order to maintain high levels of reliability for our customers that have resulted in rates that are 15% below the national average," Reaves said.

The PSC will vote on the power plan in July.

"I would imagine my colleague [Lauren "Bubba" McDonald] will want to do more with solar - maybe double or triple that [gigawatt] amount - and I will support him all the way," Echols said. "I think as long as we have the investment tax credits available, it just makes sense for our customers.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.