This article originally appeared in SaportaReport Sustainable Communities - Thought Leadership on July 23, 2018.
By Bailey Shea
Georgia’s solar capacity in 2017 ranked second in the Southeast. Ninety-five percent of this capacity is utility-scale solar farms, while only 5 percent is on rooftops. While Georgia has the potential to be a nationwide leader in rooftop solar power, this market has struggled for a number of reasons. This article discusses the challenges and opportunities faced by the underserved rooftop solar market in Georgia in 2018 and 2019.
In 2015, the unanimous passage of the Solar Power Free Market Financing Act excited Georgia’s solar advocates. This law allows a third-party solar company to finance and own a solar system located on a property and to sell the solar electricity generated by the solar system to that property’s owner via a Solar Energy Procurement Agreement (SEPA), theoretically at a rate lower than electricity purchased from the utility.
Southface anticipated that SEPA providers would focus on commercial customers, and launched the Solar for Underserved Markets Initiative to help nonprofits, communities of faith, and low-income multifamily housing developers take advantage of the new law. However, by 2016 it became apparent via the ongoing tracking of solar installations for www.GeorgiaEnergyData.org that the entire rooftop market in Georgia was underserved. As a result, the Initiative grew to include residential rooftop solar. Below is an update on the residential, nonprofit commercial, and low-income multifamily housing sectors, as well as a look forward to the challenges and opportunities for rooftop solar in Georgia.
Despite the SEPA option and a 53 percent drop in the price of solar systems in Georgia over the past five years, the state’s residential solar market is lagging behind the rest of the country. Georgia currently has over 1,000 homes with solar systems. By contrast, since South Carolina passed a solar leasing law in 2014, about 4,000 homeowners have signed up for rooftop solar panels under lease or financing arrangements. This is due in part because South Carolina has state and utility-level incentives that Georgia does not.
Georgia’s residential solar market is currently being expanded via community-led Solarize campaigns, which give residential customers the ability to purchase solar systems for their homes as a group, dramatically reducing the cost per watt of solar installed. Solarize campaigns in Georgia have not had any government or utility financial assistance, and each Solarize campaign works with its respective municipality to streamline solar permitting.
Since the launch of Solarize Tybee in 2015, which was Georgia’s first Solarize campaign, about 50 percent of all residential solar in the state has been installed via a Solarize campaign; this highlights the strong demand for residential rooftop solar in Georgia. Moving forward, the residential customer needs more information about the benefits of solar and streamlined permitting. A continued decline in the price of solar systems, such as that provided via Solarize campaigns, will also help to move the market.
Current Solarize campaigns in Georgia, administered by Solar Crowdsource, Environment Georgia, and Georgia Interfaith Power & Light (GIPL), include Solarize Atlanta, Solarize Carrollton-Carroll, and Solarize Newton-Morgan.
The federal income tax credit of 30 percent provides a significant incentive to commercial building owners to install solar systems. This incentive is not available to nonprofits, however, because they do not pay federal income tax. Many nonprofits do not have the financial capacity to absorb the upfront costs of buying and installing a system. The SEPA is beginning to demonstrate its practicality for nonprofits and municipalities that want the cost savings and environmental benefits that solar can provide, while avoiding the upfront costs of purchase and installation of the panels.
Southface is aware of two SEPAs that have been signed in Georgia, one each for the cities of Macon and Atlanta. The City of Atlanta’s Solar Atlanta initiative will put solar on the roofs of 24 of its municipal buildings (mostly fire stations and recreation centers) including the C.T. Martin Recreation Center (pictured) completed in April 2018. Atlanta’s SEPA was signed with Cherry Street Energy and the installer is Radiance Solar.
Southface does not know of a non-municipal nonprofit that has utilized a SEPA. However, thanks to Southface’s nonprofit assistance efforts, specifically the Grants To Green program, some nonprofits have recently acquired solar systems. Southface’s Solar for Georgia’s Nonprofits white paper and this 2017 Thought Leadership article on the potential of SEPAs for municipalities both discuss this in further detail. Southface hopes that in 2019, SEPAs will expand beyond municipal customers and into the broader nonprofit sector and communities of faith.
Low-Income Multifamily Housing
Low-income housing developers seeking a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) have the potential to benefit from installing solar systems on their buildings. However, in order to maximize the benefit of solar via a SEPA, a LIHTC developer may want to consider working with the local electric utility to “master meter” the multifamily development. This metering arrangement is common for many older housing complexes, particularly with water meters.
While today’s solar market carries many economic benefits, not all market segments share in those benefits equitably. There are several factors that could shift this landscape in the future. First, a rise in the cost of electricity could increase the demand for high energy performance buildings, energy efficiency, and onsite solar. In 2019, Georgia Power and the Georgia Public Service Commission will initiate a rate case proceeding that will determine the retail cost of electricity for the next three years. In the wake of the Southern Company – Atlanta Gas Light Resources merger, Georgia Power forestalled its 2016 rate case, such that the utility will enter into its 2019 rate case with six years of revenue and sales changes and six years of technology and industry evolution to address. These considerations and others, alongside the on-going construction effort at Plant Vogtle, are expected to factor into electricity costs in the years ahead.
Additionally, the solar market in Georgia could be influenced by local efforts to deploy more clean energy, such as the City of Atlanta’s 100 percent clean energy plan, Clean Energy Atlanta. Lastly, battery storage has the potential to expand the rooftop solar market dramatically by allowing solar electricity generated onsite to be consumed during times when the sun is not shining. In Solarize Dunwoody, which ended in April of 2018, 62.5 percent of residential customers bought storage for their home in addition to solar. Current campaigns are on track to reach or exceed this number: 66 percent of residential customers in Solarize Atlanta have signed up to purchase storage in addition to their solar arrays; 75 percent of residential customers in Solarize Carrollton-Carroll have done the same (data as of July 5, 2018, obtained from Solar Crowdsource).
That said, the challenge of storage, much like solar, will be to maximize its potential to benefit all Georgians including low-income residents and nonprofits. One example of how this might be accomplished is through community “resilience hubs” or facilities that would provide power to communities with limited resources to bounce back from a natural or man-made disaster. Whether coupled with onsite solar or receiving electricity from the grid, battery storage has the power to bring energy resiliency to the most vulnerable neighborhoods.
These three variables – electricity prices, municipal efforts, and battery storage – are poised to have a great impact on the rooftop solar market in Georgia in the coming years, as will the leadership that nonprofits, communities of faith, low-income housing developers, and all Georgians take in pursuing a clean energy future that includes solar power.
Bailey Shea is the Policy Fellow at Southface, where she tracks legislation and regulations at the local and state level to assess their impact on sustainability and currently leads the Solar for Underserved Markets Initiative. Bailey also manages GeorgiaEnergyData.org.