SELC op-ed: Utility roadblocks are the South’s real solar eclipse

The 2012 solar eclipse. (© Ian Hitchcock)

As our region and country experience today's solar eclipse, Senior Attorney Katie Ottenweller weighs in with a reminder of the key role the sun's power plays in securing a clean energy future for the Southeast. An excerpt from her op-ed in Southeast Energy News is below. Click here to read the full piece.


Today for the first time in nearly 100 years, a solar eclipse will cross the entire continental U.S. While many states will see a partial eclipse, the path of totality where the moon will completely cover the sun is expected to span a 70 mile swath from Oregon to South Carolina.

In addition to being a natural wonder, the eclipse is also a reminder of the incredible power of our sun—and the growing promise of solar power.

States with significant solar capacity have been planning for the eclipse, and due to smart investments in modern grid technologies, national grid operators do not anticipate any reliability issues as a result. In fact, they are using the event to help inform and prepare for more renewable energy in the future.

Once the eclipse passes, clean, renewable sunlight will continue to shine down on our communities. Yet the reality is that much of the South will remain in the dark due to the barriers that block our access to solar power.

The benefits of solar power are myriad. Clean, renewable solar power is predictable—we know when the sun will shine, and solar panels are at their most productive on hot, sunny days when fossil electricity is most expensive. It is also affordable—the price of solar panels is a tenth of what it was a decade ago and costs continue to decline, making solar cost-competitive with traditional power plants.

It is reliable—distributed, fuel-free resources make our grid more secure, which is why military bases in Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina have all gone solar. And not least, solar investments create good local jobs—over 20,000 (and counting) in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama.

And yet, solar power amounts to a tiny fraction of the South’s overall electricity mix. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, solar makes up only 0.02% of Alabama’s electric mix; 0.09% of Virginia’s; and 0.15% of Tennessee’s. The state with the most solar in our region, North Carolina, gets just 3.25% of its electricity from the sun. Its largest utility, Duke Energy, commissioned a study showing that today’s grid could integrate many times more, with net benefits to the grid.

Even so, our region continues to be dominated by expensive, dirty fossil plants that burn coal and gas—harming our health and polluting our air and water, as we watch the clean energy economy pass us by.

All of which begs the question: if solar power can reduce peak energy costs, strengthen the grid, create jobs and make our communities healthier and cleaner, why aren’t we seeing a whole lot more of it?

Utilities: do what’s best for your customers

Here are the facts: investing in local solar farms instead of more costly power plants saves utility customers money. For example, Georgia Power will save Georgians several hundred million dollars because of its Advanced Solar Initiative, which buys power from rural solar farms across the state. The clear benefits from Georgia’s solar investments stand in sharp contrast to the over-budget, risky and delayed nuclear project that Georgia is currently re-assessing.

Unfortunately, our utilities often have perverse incentives to build bigger, more expensive and more risky power plants, because they collect a guaranteed profit on every dollar spent (including when they go over-budget or don’t finish a project). This may be good for shareholders, but not for captive customers who pick up the tab.

Solar power costs are remarkably predictable and going in only one direction: down. Utilities often buy solar power through fixed power contracts—meaning that the risks are borne by independent solar farm owners, not utility customers. Yet utilities in the South continue to treat solar as a “fringe” energy source rather than allowing fair competition with other energy resources. This stacks the deck for their favored resources and we end up with more of the same—ever-rising power bills.

As today’s magnificent solar eclipse recedes, we’re reminded how blessed we are in the sunny South. We can no longer afford to squander this incredible resource. It’s time for those who regulate our utilities to demand a new energy forecast — one where our utilities can no longer cloud our region’s clean energy future.

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