Renewable Energy Shines Brighter as Utility Bills Soar; University Researchers across Georgia Look at Alternative Energy Technology

Article excerpt

Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- Erica Frank's idea of home improvement involves a little more than driving down to the local hardware store.

She installed a solar panel onto her Atlanta home to warm water and added triple-paned windows to trap in heat. Lights and appliances at her other house two hours north of the city run off power generated by a small stream.

Frank, whose mountain home is one of the few in the state to run independently of the electric company's power grid, said she made the changes several years ago because of concerns over power plant emissions rather than saving on her monthly bills.

"Financially, I don't think we're making a killing on it, but it makes me happy to know that I'm not giving Georgia Power one more nickel than I need to," said Frank, an associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

University researchers across the state, however, are looking into new technologies to make renewable energy less costly and more powerful.

Bernard Kippelen, associate director of Georgia Tech's Center for Organic Photonics and Electronics, is working on a new form of solar panels made from lightweight and cheaper materials, studying to see if the flexible cells can be used in retailers' inventory trackers or personal appliances, such as cell phones or radios.

Because the field is still new, he said, and it is unknown if the technology could be used on a mass level to run homes or fuel power plants.

While the focus to live "green" has yet to hit the mass market, increased attention on rising fuel costs and utility bills are giving advocates more steam in their arguments for alternative energy sources.

"I think there is an awakening to paying attention to energy issues," Kippelen said. "I think every time they fill their [car] tank it gets their attention."

Much of the electricity in the country is produced by plants burning fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas. Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Co. that provides electricity to 2 million customers in the state, also relies on nuclear and hydroelectric power.

But the surging expenses for those fossil fuels have hit Georgia Power hard, according to the company, which is asking state regulators to pass along the burden to customers.

"The rise is the rise in coal prices and the continued high prices in natural gas," said Georgia Power spokesman John Sell. "What's driving higher coal prices is the global coal market. Specifically, China's growth has almost doubled the price of domestic coal in some cases."

As a regulated utility, Georgia Power is allowed to recover its fuel costs from bill payers.

The company has asked the Public Service Commission for a $390 million increase in rates that would increase bills 9.8 percent, adding $2.70 to the monthly bills for the average residential customer.

Savannah Electric, another Southern Co. subsidiary, received approval last year for a 13.5 percent increase for fuel recovery that added $13 a month for the typical resident.

And Atlanta Gas Light, which supplies natural gas to companies that bill homes and businesses throughout the state, also is asking regulators for permission to raise more money for fuel expenses that would translate into a $1.39 monthly increase for home customers.

Public Service Commissioner Bobby Baker said Georgia Power officials promised to estimate better the fuel costs during the company's last fuel-recovery hearings in 2003.

"Now we're being told that the problem is getting worse rather than better, and we've been given a number of reasons why," he said.

The increases highlight the need for Southern Co. to start seriously looking at energy sources whose costs are less likely to fluctuate because of global demand, said Rita Kilpatrick, Georgia Policy Director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. …