Echols’ brings passion for renewable energy to the Georgia Public Service Commission

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?”

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Pocket constitutions a perk for precinct 8A voters

Sue Tullier and her daughter Austin had almost run out of pocket-sized U.S. Constitutions by mid-afternoon on Election Day. They’d been standing outside of Gaines School Elementary for hours, distributing tiny booklets bought with their own money.

“We are passing out Constitutions to keep people informed as to how their government operates,” said Austin Tullier. The women hope people will study up before they reach the booth.

“We figured – especially when the lines were longer – voters could peruse it as they waited in line since the battery isn’t going to run out in an hour and a half on a book.”

“So far we’ve given out 525,” says Sue Tullier, “We’ve had several people thank us and make comments such as ‘Good document. Good thing to have.’”

The mother and daughter are part of a bigger project — handing out 100 million copies of the Constitution nationwide — sponsored by non-profit freedomfactor.org.

According to the website the mission of this organization is to “educate millions of Americans on the basics of American government.” They want to promote the fundamentals so that “more knowledgeable citizens will build a better country.”

The organization sells pocket Constitutions cheaply and in bulk, and buyers can use them however they want.

“Our constitution is written very simply. Our forefathers spent a lot of time picking out which words they wanted to use,” said Stephanie Halmo, a UGA graduate student waiting in line to vote. She remembers studying the Constitution during in her AP Government course in high school.

“I think it’s true to say that a lot of citizens, a lot of natural born citizens, don’t know the Constitution nor understand the purpose of it,” said Michelle Ziadie, also a graduate student at UGA.

This is why Sue Tullier is so passionate about giving away free copies. “People don’t know the Constitution. They don’t know what the president or the justices are and are not allowed to do. Laws are made by congress. Not the president nor the Supreme Court,” Sue said. “So often they interpret law or enforce laws incorrectly that are against the Constitution when they have neither the power nor authority to do so.”

“I bet there are a lot of naturalized citizens who understand the Constitution much better than a lot of American born citizens do,” Ziadie said. Because, after all, they had to study the document to become citizens.

“In order to be a better informed voting community I think we do need to have a better understanding of the constitution,” she said.

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In Athens, Amendment 1 on Election Day ballot finds few backers

Amendment 1 is one of the more hotly debated issues on the Nov. 8 Georgia ballot. If passed, the amendment would put “chronically failing” schools in the hands of appointed officials heading a statewide program called the “Opportunity School District.”

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, the Georgia Board of Education, and some advocates favor this move. But it is being denounced by parents, teachers, future teachers and concerned citizens in Athens and elsewhere.

Gaines Elementary School is the only Clarke County school on the “failing” list, which includes 127 of Georgia’s 2,200 schools.

Schools end up on this list when their scores fall below 60 on a state assessment tool called the College and Career Ready Performance Index. Gaines scored 59.8.

Critics say the wording of the amendment is misleading.

“Amendment 1 is worded a little deceptively to make us think that it would increase local control and add more resources to our public schools,” said Briana Bivins, a regional field coordinator with a group formed to oppose the change. “What it really does, however, is transfer local dollars, resources, and decision making power away from the communities that really know our students best to a single, hand-picked political appointee who we don’t elect.”

Mary Kathryn Henderson, a University of Georgia junior majoring in education, agrees.

“The government officials that will step in and take over schools that are failing may or may not have a background in education — they might not know what’s good for the kids.”

Others think the idea of a statewide Opportunity School District is impractical.

“It’s already hard enough to hold together a local community of schools,” said Jonathan Bemid, a parent and a middle school teacher. If one school in a district is separated from the others, “it just causes more trouble than there needs to be.”

He also thinks the state’s test is not an accurate measure of a school’s performance.

It benefits schools whose students are well-supported at home and achieving at grade level.

“When a school has kids who are coming in as weak students before they even get to school then we just end up in a position where our schools look bad on paper when they aren’t,” Bemid said.

While everyone believes in improving schools, many believe Amendment 1 is not the best way to accomplish that.

“It totally circumvents the democratic process – creating an additional layer of bureaucracy and silencing both parents and teachers,” said Bivens. “It amounts to nothing more than a political power grab.”

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