Georgia is adding solar energy faster than almost any state in the nation, according to an industry trade group, and there’s more coming.
Now lawmakers are considering forgiving a fee for folks who want to install solar power on protected land, while another bill aims to address what some see as a bit of a cloud on solar’s horizon.
Across Georgia in 2015, there were enough solar panels installed to generate 409 megawatts of power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. By 2016, that number was up to 1,432 megawatts of installed solar capacity, which made Georgia the third-fastest state for growth in solar, according to the group. They estimate some 162,000 homes in the state are powered by solar.
Signs are that there’s more coming.
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The state’s biggest utility, Georgia Power, is looking to buy sizable chunks of renewable power in the next few years. Most of it will be procured via separate rounds of competitive bidding scheduled for 2017 and 2019. That energy could come from wind, biomass, biogas or solar.
The utility is also going to buy the output from smaller-scale projects through an application process. And the company is adding to its own solar capacity and will design a new renewable program for commercial and industrial customers.
And a Georgia solar industry group is pressing for a bill that would let people install solar panels on land protected for farming or conservation, but without paying a fee for breaking their covenant.
The covenants addressed in the bill cover something like half the state — about 18 million acres, at the time of a 2013 state review. Landowners who sign up to the programs, the Conservation Use Valuation Assessment or the Forest Land Protection Act, get a property tax break, but pretty much have to limit the use to things like farming and timber production.
If a landowner breaks a covenant, fees are set at two times the tax savings the landowner collected under it.
The bill by state Rep. Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, waives that fee if the landowner is going solar. So counties miss that revenue, but they can charge more taxes on the built-up land than they could on protected land.
“It’s a net gain for your local property tax” collections, Hatchett said at a Senate subcommittee hearing on his bill on Wednesday.
Ryan Sanders of the Georgia Large-Scale Solar Association said he could bring the lawmakers a “line of landowners” that his trade group has talked to over the years whose interest in solar was killed by breach fees measured in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some legislators, such as state Sen. Renee Unterman, pushed back against the bill.
“I just don’t think it’s fair to opt out and not to pay that breach payment … when other people, if we opt out up here, we have to pay it,” said the Buford Republican.
House Bill 238 already has House approval and is awaiting a vote in a subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee.
Selling back to the grid
Separately, there’s a move to limit how Georgia’s smaller utilities — electric membership corporations and other smaller electricity providers — could set charges on customers who sell solar back to the grid.
The system now is a “bait-and-switch,” said Stan Hutchinson, a customer of Central Georgia EMC. He’s facing a new “net metering tariff” that first appeared on his January power bill. That’s even though the utility gave him a rebate for installing solar in 2015. It still does offer the rebate.
Hutchinson said that when he installed solar panels, it wasn’t cheap, but it was an economic decision that he calculated would pay off in 12 to 15 years.
Now, he said, the payoff is more like 80 years away. For one, the utility pays less for his power than it used to.
But he said the new flat monthly fee amounting $51.91 plus service fees mean his bill is $79 per month even before the first watt of power is used.
“That’s the double-whammy,” he said.
Some in the solar industry say that those fees will smother small solar in areas served by smaller utilities. EMCs generally have very few customer-generators. Southern Rivers Energy, for example, has 15.
“I think we need more transparency in fees. People who are going to make a pretty significant investment putting solar on their house need to know what’s going to happen,” said state Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville. His House Bill 431 would mandate that these smaller utilities advertise, invite public comment and justify any solar fees.
Georgia Power’s fees are regulated separately, by the Georgia Public Service Commission.
But EMCs broadly criticize the bill, saying that meetings are open to members and the bill undermines a big overhaul of electric regulation negotiated in 2015.
Brockway said he is working with all sides to try and work out a compromise.
Christy Chewning, supervisor of marketing services at Central Georgia EMC, said in a written statement that the bill is not in the best interest of its customers.
She also said the net metering tariff is meant to make sure that non-solar customers don’t subsidize the customers who do have solar. But she also said the utility is working on another rate that could allow solar customers to avoid that charge.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee