I voted for Donald Trump. I am thrilled at appointments he has made. I like the federalist approach that agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency are taking under Trump, giving more consideration to individual states. But one of the administration's actions is giving me more than a little pause.
The Department of Energy is currently conducting a study intended to assess the strength of the nation's electric grid. The study explores whether renewable energy policies and regulations are problematic for grid reliability, a notion Energy Secretary Rick Perry has suggested might be the case. A leaked draft of the study that was compiled by DOE career staff, however, found that renewable energy is not harming the grid.
But Perry's own staff has said that the findings in the final study, expected this month, will differ from those in the draft – fueling fear among utilities, politicians and the energy industry that after undergoing internal review, the study could be changed to weaken state-level renewable energy policies. The study could be used to punish renewables at the expense of giving coal and nuclear an extra boost. Truth be told, we need all of these energy sources.
I applaud President Trump's central focuses of increasing American energy independence, protecting our national security, giving taxpayers a break and creating good-paying jobs. But intentionally weakening renewable energy policy at the state level would accomplish none of his core objectives.
I currently serve as a Public Utilities Commissioner in Georgia, where we recognized the value renewables could bring to our state right off the bat. Many doubted our Public Service Commission when we created a host of policies to kickstart solar in the Peach State--in fact, many called our policies anti-Republican.
But four years later, opponents of our decisions are hard to find. Landowners have benefited, solar developers have made a fair profit, and the tax bases of economically-distressed South Georgia communities have received a much needed boost in tax revenues. I can't speak for any other state, but other states--and the administration--might want to take a lesson from how our state has benefited from renewable energy.
Let's start with taxpayers and utility customers. Both have made gains from the enormous growth of solar. Poorer counties throughout rural middle and South Georgia are seeing land values rise as a result of solar technology installed in their area. Solar investments are boosting local economies due to payments from the leasing companies.
This helps local tax revenue and trickles down to various county departments. Some of this land has been in agricultural and conservation easements that reduced the tax liability. Moving land into solar not only shifts it into a higher tax-paying category, but the land value itself goes up, yielding even more revenue.
The grid and its customers benefit too. Adding diversity in our power generation helps support grid reliability and is a hedge against rising fuel costs—either coal or natural gas. With solar spread throughout our state, we experience less wasted electricity as it travels through power lines because the electricity doesn't have to travel as far. And because solar is inexpensively produced in our state, Georgia Power's customers can benefit from lower electricity rates.
Like many states, military bases play a vital role in economic development in Georgia. When our Public Service Commission found out that the Department of Defense wanted military bases to have a measure of energy independence, we worked with Georgia Power and allowed them to build projects that allowed those bases to host distributed sources of solar power.
And there are discussions with the military on the "microgrid," which would allow bases to separate from the grid in times of emergency and maintain power supplies. These solar facilities help the Department of Defense meet their renewable energy goals while supporting the bases' resiliency objectives, enhancing the bases' position if the Base Closure Commission comes calling again to evaluate its long-term usefulness.
Finally, solar jobs have been good for the Georgia job market. During the Great Recession, many construction jobs were lost. The growth of solar in Georgia allowed many experienced workers to learn a new skill. I attended a week long training program where installers were being trained, electricians were redirecting their skills, and sales people were learning about new products. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are more than 236 solar companies at work in Georgia, and over $2 billion in total solar investment in the state. Overall, the solar industry employs almost 4,000 people in the state.
As a state elected regulator, I am very happy with the progress our state has made in solar deployment-and my constituents are too. To best align with President Trump's goals, the administration should recognize the many benefits that renewables are bringing to communities. I hope the President will continue to encourage Georgia and other states to generate homegrown electricity.
Commentary by Tim Echols, the current commissioner of the Georgia Public Service Commission.
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