The future is bright for solar

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Author: John Sibley

What is the future of solar power in Georgia?
The future is bright. Solar power has begun to take off in our state. The installed capacity of solar electric systems more than doubled in 2011. We have about 700 systems and over 20 megawatts (MW) of capacity, providing enough electricity to power more than 2,000 homes.

Even more dramatic growth is coming. Georgia Power has about 50 MW in the pipeline for the next couple of years and has proposed another 210 MW through the end of 2016. Southface’s analysis of our solar database shows that almost half of the current installed capacity is outside Georgia Power’s territory. Cobb EMC will add a 10 MW project in 2013.

Georgia is on track to exceed 300 MW within the next 3 years. Solar power will grow in other states too, but 300 MW would rank Georgia in the top five states today.

What do you think the potential is for solar in Georgia?
The Georgia Solar Energy Association (GSEA) has set a next–step goal of 1,000 MW. That goal is attainable. New Jersey, with less sunshine, is already above 900 MW. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has determined that Georgia’s technical potential for rooftop solar is 25 times GSEA’s goal. It’s not too soon to start thinking beyond 1,000 MW.

A telling story comes from Germany. Solar power is thriving there on much less sunshine than in Georgia. One of the most successful economies in the world has made solar a major component of powering the future. On one sunny day in 2012, half of the power used in Germany was coming from the sun. As an annual average, solar has increased from 4.1% of Germany’s power in 2011 to 6.1% in the first 9 months of 2012.

Georgia’s economy can thrive on solar power, too. About 6,000 MW of solar energy would produce 6% of Georgia’s electricity. We have a lot of room to grow.

Aren’t our power bills too low in Georgia for that kind of growth in solar to make sense?
It is certainly true that the growth of solar in New Jersey and Germany was spurred by higher electricity rates than we have, but deals for solar power that make financial sense can already be done by many customers in Georgia.

The cost of solar panels has come down so much that there are deals for commercial-scale rooftop systems that can generate power for 10-12 cents per KWh or even less. When you take into account all charges on the bill, the average rate paid by a commercial customer in Georgia is in that same range. The average all-in rate for a residential customer is a couple of cents more. Since the cost of solar is coming down and utility rates will be going up, solar will make financial sense for more and more customers each year.

The cost of solar power is right at the point where the market would explode in Georgia if economics were the only consideration.

So, what’s holding us back?
Outdated policies. It is often the case that laws and regulations fall behind the economic times and become the biggest barrier to emerging technologies.

One of the important questions for any solar installation is how it will be connected into the grid. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council keeps a scorecard on the interconnection policies of the states. Georgia gets an “F,” the lowest grade assigned.

For a lot of people, the upfront cost of solar is the biggest drawback. Although solar can be financed through Power Purchase Agreements (PPA), in Georgia, PPAs are under a cloud. Utilities challenge them based on policies adopted in 1973, when nobody was thinking about how to finance solar systems. Southface disagrees with the utilities’ position, but only one PPA has been achieved in Georgia; the rest remain in political haze. A clarification of Georgia’s polices for financing solar deals is much needed.

Southface has been working to expand the marketplace for solar power since 1978. Removing outdated barriers to this technology will remain one of the objectives of our advocacy.

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