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Georgia utility regulator: Sunshine State to lose solar race along with football title

By the end of 2016, Georgia’s solar capacity will reach 790 megawatts, almost seven times more than Florida.
Published Nov. 20, 2013

ORLANDO — Bubba McDonald is a half-full kind of guy.

Where Florida utilities and state leaders see skies that are partly cloudy and too dim for solar power, he envisions potential.

That optimism led the Georgia utility regulator to push his state toward the ranks of the Top 5 in utility-scale solar energy, along with California, Arizona, New Jersey and Nevada — and far ahead of Florida.

McDonald proposes that the Sunshine State live up to its name when it comes to solar power development or else find itself struggling yet, again, to keep pace with Georgia.

"We beat your butt in football," he said. "Take us on in that challenge."

McDonald, a Republican who received strong backing from Atlanta tea party members for his solar initiative, spoke Tuesday as part of a panel discussion on solar at the National Association of Regulated Utility Commissioners annual meeting.

In 2010, McDonald led the effort to create 50 megawatts of solar in Georgia, about one-third of Florida's existing capacity. By the end of 2016, Georgia's solar capacity will reach 790 megawatts, about four times more than the Sunshine State.

California leads all states by far with more than 2,900 megawatts of installed solar, followed by Arizona with about 1,100 megawatts and New Jersey with 971 megawatts, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Florida didn't even make the Top 12.

Florida has been slow to develop solar power primarily because utility executives have long argued that the Sunshine State suffers from "intermittent cloud."

In addition, utility companies and state leaders say the cost of solar simply isn't competitive with conventional electricity generators such as natural gas and coal.

"Do we want more solar? Absolutely," said Lisa Edgar, a Florida Public Service Commission member. "Do I want more solar? Yes!

"How to do it more efficiently and economically, we haven't figured it out," she said.

It seemed that way four years ago in Georgia, when McDonald began his quest.

"The one question that is asked of me the most is, 'Are you crazy?' " McDonald said during the panel discussion.

"I studied New Jersey," he said. "I studied California. And I felt like we have that great opportunity in Georgia because we have a lot of sun."

McDonald's strategy focused on Georgia's Integrated Resource Planning strategy for energy production, which allows that state's regulators to require utilities to include various energy sources for electricity generation, as long as it makes economic sense. In other places, such as North Carolina, state lawmakers have mandated use of renewable energy sources.

Florida lawmakers would have to pass legislation to give state utility regulators that power, something utilities have opposed.

In Georgia, "you have a commission that wants to figure it out," said Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has called for Integrated Resource Planning in Florida. "The commission here doesn't want to tell the utilities to do it. But if you order the utilities to do it, they will figure out how to do it in a cost-effective manner."

McDonald told the gathering that advancements in solar and lower prices are quickly becoming the new reality that can't be blocked with clouds.

"It's coming," McDonald said. "This is where the utilities have got to wake up."

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