Tim Echols first dreamed of holding statewide office when he was 20 years old, and three decades later he was 50 when first elected to the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2010. To get there, he had to beat two Republicans and a Democrat.
The 2016 contest to represent District 2 on the Commission was easier: Echols bested two challengers in the Republican primary, but in the general election on Nov. 8 he faced Eric Hoskins, a little-known Libertarian candidate. In an unprecedented result, Echols won statewide by a one million-vote margin. Ordinarily, this would not happen because many voters leave the box blank when an incumbent runs with only token opposition.
But Echols is not an ordinary candidate. He has a long history in conservative circles, having been a top adviser to former U.S. Congressman Paul Broun. He routinely speaks out against Environmental Protection Agency rules, he supports the expansion of nuclear plants in Georgia, and he believes hydraulic fracking should be used to help meet energy demands.
That said, Echols is passionate about renewable resources and clean energy . He’s especially big on solar power.
“As an Evangelical Christian, stewardship is very important to me, and that principle drives my energy philosophy as well,” said Echols. “Clean energy generated in our state is a win-win with better air quality, more jobs and lower transmission costs.”
Members of the Georgia Public Service Commission regulate utility companies in the state and wield considerable control over what consumers pay for electricity, natural gas and telecommunications. The PSC usually makes news when customers complain that they’re being overcharged so power companies can afford to build new nuclear plants or other major facilities.
Echols’ advocacy for renewable energy stands out in this setting.
“Renewable and clean energy should be an important issues for Georgia, and the Public Service Commission has been the primary driver and advocate for making sure that solar has had a chance to gain a market foothold,” says Thomas Lawrence, who coordinates the mechanical engineering program at the University of Georgia.
Alternative energy companies have gained a foothold in parts of Georgia where good jobs are scarce, Echols and Lawrence say
“There are more than 197 solar companies at work in Georgia, investing $79 million to install solar on home and business,” said Lawrence. “Georgia has very strong solar potential.”
Echols agrees. “Though we did not realize this when we began to approve vast amounts of solar, most of the panels are in middle or south Georgia where land is cheap and jobs are needed,” said Echols. “This has helped poorer counties increase land values and their tax base, which has helped schools and county infrastructure.”
Dr. David Gattie, an associate professor of environmental engineering at UGA, cautions that this growth will be slow and require innovation. “While solar energy farms here in Georgia have increased in recent years, it’s unlikely they — or any other renewable energy source — will overtake coal or natural gas as Georgia’s primary energy provider anytime soon.”
During his first six-year term on the PSC, Echols says he has helped Georgia move up the leader board for solar energy. Now he wants to keep the momentum going.
“When I took office, the power company was hostile towards solar, and that bothered me,” said Echols. “We changed the policies here in Georgia and made solar work for the utility, the landowners, the developers and the ratepayers, yet we have kept costs down. How can anyone argue with that?”