What’s Up With Solar?

Georgia enjoys lots of sunshine. We all know that. Thankfully, Georgia’s leaders have finally stopped making the erroneous argument that Georgia doesn’t receive enough direct sunlight to make solar power feasible. The growth in solar power in far less sun-blessed countries such as Germany and states (New Jersey) debunks that argument.

What has held solar back in terms of growth amounts to three things:

  • Cost
  • Public policy
  • Successful lobbying from competing industries

Direct costs for producing solar panels have fallen drastically over the past 35 years. (http://io9.com/solar-powers-epic-price-drop-visualized-510448484) In states where electricity is expensive (such as California) and Federal and state subsidies are generous, the cost of solar is virtually on par with other sources of electricity. All of this is very good news for solar supporters.

In Georgia, we are beginning to see some policy shifts. The Public Service Commission (PSC) recently voted to compel Georgia Power to “increase its solar power capacity by 525 megawatts by the end of 2016. Of that amount, 425 megawatts would come from large ‘utility-scale’ solar projects and 100 would come from projects small enough to be installed by individual residential or commercial property owners.” (http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2013/07/11/georgia-psc-orders-more-solar-power.html?page=all)

This shift came about, in part, due to coordination between long-term environmentalists and a branch of the Tea Party. These disparate groups found common ground with solar: the environmentalists like the clean energy angle, while the Tea Party folks like the idea of offering competition to Georgia Power via more electric power options. This Green Tea Party is making some inroads, and it will be interesting to see what – if any – future success they have.

For example, they could turn their attention to the Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act of 1973. This act, which effectively divided the state into districts and determined which utilities would provide electric service to these districts, has been used by Georgia Power to quash attempts to increase the growth of solar power. Specifically, this law has been used to ensure that third-party entities cannot lease space on someone’s roof, install solar panels, then sell the power generated to the homeowner and back to the grid, as available. Solar City, http://www.solarcity.com/residential/solar-ppa.aspx, offers these services in several states. They make the switch to solar affordable for homeowners and small businesses. Although the cost of solar panels has decreased significantly, the cost of installing solar systems is still quite expensive. If the Green Tea coalition could manage to repeal or significantly revise this law, great strides could be made to bring solar to more people, more quickly.

But the electric utilities are pulling out all the stops to keep their monopoly in place. Georgia Power is seeking permission from the PSC to increase fixed fees for customers using solar panels, ostensibly to “protect and maintain the grid.” And Georgia isn’t the only state requesting significant increases in fixed “user” fees for solar customers: Arizona has petitioned its regulators to allow it to charge from $50 to $100 per customer for fixed fees. If the PSC allows Georgia Power to tack on such high fees now, it may well hamstring solar growth before it gets a toe-hold. The average estimated cost to solar users would be $22.00 per month on top of other fees (http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2013-10-18/psc-staff-recommends-against-georgia-power-solar-fee). Although the PSC staff has recommended against the increase, the PSC hasn’t yet voted on it; that vote is expected in December.

Hoping for serious solar gain,

Jennifer C.

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