“State bill could put solar within reach of many”

Ga. lawmakers seek to avoid consumers’ big front-end payouts.
By Matt Kempner mkempner@ajc.com

Athens architect Lori Bork Newcomer says nine out of every 10 clients consider installing solar panels on the sustainable homes she designs. Almost none end up actually doing it.

The show stopper is the upfront cost — which can be $15,000-$25,000 — and the long payback period, Newcomer said. “For a lot of them, it is just out of reach.”

Solar advocates say that could change this year if Georgia legislators pass a bill giving consumers, small businesses and schools more ways to go solar. They cite options popular in some states where homeowners and others can avoid any front-end payouts. Solar companies in those situations often finance, own and maintain the home rooftop systems and let consumers essentially lease the systems, tapping into the energy for a monthly fee.

In the past, Georgia Power and other utilities feared such a set-up would dilute the monopolies they have on selling retail power and lead to unsafe electric connections.

That opposition has faded as consumers and regulators have shown more interest in solar energy and the price of the technology has fallen. Bolstered by language in the bill that protects their territories and lines, Georgia Power and rural utilities have joined environmental groups and solar developers in supporting the latest legislation.

State Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, lead sponsor of HB 57, is pushing it as a win for the free market. The question is whether many Georgians would, for the first time, decide to get much of their energy from somewhere other than the local power company.

Having the choice is important, said Liz Coyle of consumer group Georgia Watch. “It is good for consumers.” If enough Georgians put solar in place, it will reduce the need to build as many big and costly power plants that can drive up ratepayers’ monthly bills, she said. It’s also a step toward clean power, she said.

Power industry officials caution that solar energy is only an intermittent power source that can’t be counted on when sunlight isn’t hitting solar panels. So far, solar barely registers a shadow in Georgia’s energy consumption.

While big solar farms have proliferated in Georgia to supply power to utilities, solar panels on homes remain rare. Only about 550 Georgia homes with solar panels are listed on a database maintained by Atlanta-based Southface Energy Institute, though the listing is incomplete.

Some homeowners rushed to add solar panels a few years ago when the state offered temporary tax breaks that have since expired. The federal government still offers a 30-percent tax credit on the cost of solar installations, but that credit is slated to drop sharply after 2106.

“Solar is more complicated than you want it to be,” said James Marlow, who leads Atlanta-based Radiance Solar, a design and project development firm.

Homeowners have to weigh lots of factors, including incentives, roof configurations and electricity rates charged by local power companies.

Georgia’s rates remain relatively low, Marlow said. That and the current lack of state incentives for solar panels has convinced him that there won’t be a massive rush of consumers adding solar even if the legislature expands financing options. But “it’s definitely going to improve the market,” he said, and the number of residential solar systems will grow.

Representatives of Georgia Power and the Georgia Electric Membership Corporation, which represents 41 EMCs, say they haven’t estimated how Dudgeon’s bill might affect consumer demand. They said they know of no current plans for Georgia Power or the EMCs to start offering solar financing to homeowners or small businesses, but they would be free to under the legislation.

The utilities said they can help advise homeowners contemplating solar. “Trained solar consultants in each region of the state are available to help customers evaluate adding solar on their property, as well as to help understand the various solar buyback options we offer,” Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said.

Newcomer, the Athens architect, said she and her clients already are primed for solar. Most put in conduits to carry wiring for a future solar system. Some situated their roofs to be south-facing and solar-friendly should they ever take the leap.

“I bet if this bill passed, that would be a tipping point for a lot of people,” she said. Solar won’t be right for all Georgians, said Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, an elected member of the state’s energy regulatory body, the Public Service Commission. McDonald said he wouldn’t put solar on his home, in part because of a less-than-ideal roof alignment. But he said he is having a solar develop er evaluate erecting solar panels in the yard of his family’s funeral home in Cumming.

He hopes to ease the cost of summer afternoon air conditioning when visitations are underway. While a system for the funeral home could cost $100,000, he predicts it could pay for itself within about six years.

Abe Kruger isn’t that far along in evaluating solar for his next home. A resident of Midtown Atlanta and a green-building consultant, he’s renovating a 1940s era bungalow.

“If I was to cover the full upfront cost of a solar system, right now the economics are probably not there,” he said. But the pending state legislation “definitely changes the equation significantly.”

Kruger predicts having more financing options could do for home solar panels what state tax credits did to help make Georgia a national leader in electric vehicle sales.

“It’s not because Georgia is full of tree huggers,” he said. “It is because the economics make sense.”

Solar power offers beautifully clean energy, limits reliance on local power companies and could save you money in the long run. But there also lots of considerations if you’re thinking about a solar energy system, experts say:
› First, make your home extra energy efficient. That will reduce the size and cost of solar energy needs. Have sufficient insulation. Limit air leaks. Be efficient with hot water.

› Check whether your neighborhood covenants and homeowners association allow solar panels.

› Don’t expect to cut all ties to your local power company. Most homeowners don’t generate enough solar energy to be off the grid when factoring in times the sun isn’t shining on solar panels.

› Don’t expect to make significant money selling your local utility any excess energy from your home solar system.

› Big, south-facing roofs that aren’t shaded tend to have the potential to generate the most energy. Roofs with lots of peaks, valleys and angles, not so much.

› Complexities (high buildings, slate roofs, etc.) add to the cost.

› Consider how long you plan to live in the home. The break-even payback for some solar systems can be years out.

› Got an old roof that will need replacing relatively soon? Solar panels can get in the way of that.

› Where you can get additional information:
On different incentives and programs by state: dsireusa.org

Help and and advice from Georgia Power on solar energy: http://www.georgiapower.com/about-energy/energy-  sources/solar/home.cshtml

About where solar power systems and firms are in Georgia from Atlanta-based Southface Energy Institute at georgiaenergydata.org.

From the Georgia Solar Energy Association at gasolar.org.

Solar power information from the U.S. Department of Energy’s sunshot initiative at www.eere.energy.gov  /solar/sunshot/resource_center/

Finding certified solar system professionals according to the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners at nabcep.org.

A solar power primer from the non-profit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy at cleanenergy.org.

SOURCE: Atlanta Journal Constitution