Wind power cometh to Georgia

Georgia’s biggest electric utility will buy enough power from Oklahoma wind turbines to serve more than 50,000 homes under contracts just approved by state regulators.

To put it in Atlanta-scale terms, that’s a bit more than one Sandy Springs-worth of housing units.

The Georgia Public Service Commission, the state agency that decides how much people pay to turn on their lights and heat their ovens, unanimously OK’d the Georgia Power 250 MW buy last Tuesday. The imported juice starts flowing in 2016.

Environmentalists applauded the move, which follows recent decisions by Georgia Power — prodded mostly by the PSC — to invest in more clean energy such as solar power. But questions remain when the state will, if ever, start generating its own wind power off the coast.

“Wind power doesn’t use our precious water resources. Wind power also keeps our power bills stable, while electricity from coal keeps getting more and more expensive,” said Ashten Bailey, staff attorney at GreenLaw, a nonprofit legal firm that, among other things, agitates at the PSC for cleaner energy. Or, as the Sierra Club puts it, the “Public Service Commissioners did the right thing by voting to approve” the contracts, said Seth Gunning, Georgia organizer with the Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The wind comes from the Blue Canyon Wind Farm near Lawton, Okla. This particular 20-year wind deal costs less than what it would cost Georgia Power to generate the same amount of energy, though the company emphasizes that wind power per se is not necessarily cheaper; it’s the structure of this particular deal that’s cheaper. And that’s all the information the spokesman would give on said price-wise details.

But one very public part of the deal also has Georgia Power investigating plugging into more windmills via what’s called in the jargon of utilities regulation a “stipulation.” The “Blue Canyon Stipulation,” paragraph 7, gives Georgia Power until March 2015 to take a good, hard look at wind “opportunities” here in the state and report back to regulators. It’s held preliminary discussions with Georgia Southern University and Georgia Tech about the demonstration projects.

Georgia Power officials said those projects were unrelated to an intriguing study conducted in 2007 by Southern Company, Georgia Power’s parent, and Georgia Tech. The report concluded that Georgia’s coastal waters could be ripe for wind turbines. In September 2012, Environment Georgia said that Georgia missed out on 60 gigawatts of potential energy — which Environment Georgia’s Jennette Gayer told the Savannah Morning News compared to around “75 average-sized power plants.” But Gov. Nathan Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor was cold on the idea, citing a lack of available technology. Georgia has declined to join a consortium of East Coast states studying wind energy.

The deal comes as Georgia is shifting some coal out of its energy mix in favor of nuclear, gas, and now wind. Georgia Power is roughly doubling capacity at Plant Vogtle, its nuclear facility near Augusta. Once done, it will be able to power about 1 million homes and businesses. The company last year closed a coal plant near Milledgeville. Another company, Power4Georgians, has long planned to build a new coal plant in Washington County, but after years of wrangling on paper and in courts, it seems less and less likely to ever be built.