Solar industry reps urge Georgia PSC to expand popular rooftop program

By: - July 1, 2021 8:45 pm

The program allows homeowners and businesses to earn back 100% of the energy they generate through solar panels is expected to reach a 5,000-customer cap soon, causing alarm in the industry. Photo contributed by Creative Solar

A program that has made rooftop solar more affordable for homeowners in Georgia will soon hit a cap, which has solar industry representatives urging state officials to expand capacity.

Georgia Power, which is the state’s largest electricity provider, agreed in 2019 to let 5,000 customers participate in a pilot program as part of the lengthy rate-setting process through the state Public Service Commission scheduled to take place every three years. The program would have also been cut off had the newly installed solar capacity reached 32 megawatts.

The program allows customers to earn back 100% of the energy they generate through solar panels using a policy called monthly netting, which weighs a customer’s total export of electrons to the grid against what they consume.

Participation, though, has picked up dramatically this summer, with the utility expected to reach the 5,000-customer cap in the coming weeks. The commission discussed the issue Thursday but took no action.

“The large volume of applications has been, quite frankly, surprising,” Georgia Power attorney Steven Hewitson told commissioners.

The policy change saves an average user about $500 annually, making solar more cost effective for more people, said Don Moreland, a board member with the Georgia Solar Energy Association and the founder of Solar CrowdSource.

Moreland and other solar industry representatives are urging the commission to act now to let more people sign up rather than wait another year or so to revisit the program’s cap as part of the usual review process.

A group of solar businesses and industry associations warned in a letter to the commission this week that doing nothing now will have “devastating impacts” on the industry as it recovers from the pandemic. Moreland cautioned that waiting could cause the rooftop solar market to “completely crash.”

“Everything’s going to come to a screeching halt, jobs are going to be lost, companies are going to go out of business, and this is not hyperbole either,” Moreland said in an interview.

“When you have this stop, start, stop, start kind of thing, it rattles people,” he said.

Before the shift to monthly netting, only about 1,000 customers in Georgia used rooftop solar, according to Russell Seifert, CEO of Creative Solar in Georgia.

“The policy changed, and Georgians have responded,” Seifert told the commissioners Thursday. “But the sky is not falling.”

Neighboring states have leapt ahead of Georgia when it comes to the number of customers with on-site solar. South Carolina, for example, has more than 20,000 customers; Florida has about 60,000.

“This is not a blue or red thing anymore,” Seifert said. “There’s room to let the market grow.”

Hewitson, the Georgia Power attorney, advised the commission against making any changes before the next rate case cranks up next summer.

“We don’t think that there’s a reason to ignore the cap that the commission thoughtfully put on so that we could study the impacts,” Hewitson told commissioners. “Give us some time to study the impacts.”

Jill Kysor, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented a few advocacy groups during the last rate case, said she hopes the commission will press the utility to grow the program now. She compared it to adjustments the commission has approved along the way during the expansion of Plant Vogtle, which is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

“We hope the commission recognizes the success of this pilot and takes the initiative on its own to keep this program available for more Georgians,” Kysor said Thursday.

At least one commissioner, Tricia Pridemore, expressed concern that consumers are being misled by some solar vendors. She said she has personally received advertisements falsely touting free electricity for those who embrace solar.

At a minimum, Georgia Power’s rooftop users will still be on the hook for the fixed costs included in every bill.

“I understand this pilot program is nearly fully subscribed, but I question how many of these people are going to be satisfied with the outcome,” Pridemore said Thursday.

“We need to make sure that Georgians understand that there is no free lunch,” she added. “And rooftop solar is a cool new thing, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing in this world that’s truly free.”

Moreland attributed the problem to bad actors swooping in from out of state to take advantage of the state’s new monthly netting policy. He said the association has assembled a buyer’s guide to help arm consumers with the tools needed to choose a good vendor.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.