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Will solar power’s surge shine on midstate homeowners?

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Creighton Rosental is what you’d call a solar pioneer.

He had 4-kilowatt panels installed on the backyard side of his roof about five years ago. Two-thirds of the upfront cost -- about $30,000 -- was covered by state and federal tax credits.

“They built a frame and mounted it to the roof, which was a fairly substantial enterprise,” Rosental, of Macon, said.

He actually sells the solar power the panels help generate back to Georgia Power and then gets a credit on his bill.

“We’re essentially a mini power plant.”

Five years ago this collection system was so exotic, Rosental said, that it seemed as if local utility employees didn’t know how to hook up meters to read both the production of the solar power and the energy his home used.

“A lot of people at Georgia Power didn’t know anything about solar,” he said.

But Georgia Power and its parent, the Southern Co., have been paying closer attention to solar power, primarily because of its tumbling price. The drop took everyone by surprise.

Just a year ago, Southern Co. CEO Tom Fanning told the Energy Information Administration Conference that it would take some time for solar to be priced competitively.

“For the Southeast, where we have 9 and a half cent (per kilowatt) power on the average, it will probably be limited in its penetration until the end of the decade, 2018 ... 2020,” he said then.

Last year, Public Service Commission members told Georgia Power to add another 525 megawatts of solar power by 2016. (That would be in addition to the 260 megawatts they voted to add in 2010.) Last month, solar facilities came back to the utility with prices as low as 6 and a half cents a kilowatt. That got the utility’s attention.

In its filing with the PSC, Georgia Power wrote that those numbers show solar can “provide competitive pricing when challenged to do so.” The prices have accelerated solar farm development in Georgia.

The Simon Solar Farm in Social Circle, a 150-acre solar complex, was completed in 2013 and produces about 30 megawatts of energy for Georgia Power. You can see it easily on a Google map.

Georgia Power also will install large-scale collectors on three military bases around the state.

But that kind of momentum hasn’t flowed to homeowner panels, said Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia.

“We have figured out how to make the economies of scale work in these large utility scale installations better than we have at the rooftop level,” Gayer said. “Other states have figured it out better than Georgia has.”

This gets at Georgia’s energy policy. In 2012, Georgia did not renew the state tax credit that Rosental used to reduce his up-front cost. Last year the state Legislature rebuffed a bill that would have allowed homeowners to lease panels from a third-party solar developer. Twenty-two states have this arrangement that virtually removes the startup expense for homeowners. But not Georgia. Georgia Power opposes the concept because it sees the arrangements as a kind of competition.

Meanwhile, the city of Tybee Island on Georgia’s coast is trying another way to ease homeowner solar panel sticker shock. The city has plugged into a nationwide program called Solarize. Tybee Island would buy solar panels in bulk, then offer them to interested residents at a reduced cost. It’s the first Solarize program in the state.

Paul Wolff, a Tybee City Council member, said other cities that have done a Solarize project quickly see interest spread beyond their borders.

“I had gotten so many calls and emails from people ... who wondered if they could be involved that didn’t live on Tybee. I said ‘why not,’ ’’ Wolff said.

So he hopes to widen the offer of the panels to all of Chatham County. But homeowners will still need up-front cash to install them.

Roger Green, CEO of Greenavations and a solar advocate, said market forces will make it likely that homeowners ultimately see a benefit from solar. “I got asked by some people, some political people, just what exactly was this gift that God gave to the South,” he said.

Meanwhile, the leasing option, the Power Purchase Agreement, will again go before state legislators in 2015.

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