Strengthening solar in the Southeast, despite obstacles

Installations like this one on a Virginia middle school are part of the growing solar network in the Southeast that is providing clean, reliable energy as well as economic opportunity. (© Bill Sublette)

2015 was a big year for solar in the South, with significant commitments by nearly every utility in the region to expand solar investments. At the same time, customers’ individual rights to go solar are increasingly under threat. Nonetheless, with multiple corporate and municipal commitments to solar, there are bright signs for 2016.

Utilities demonstrated some of the most significant shifts toward solar, such as Alabama Power’s plan to add up to 500 MW of large-scale solar, their largest project to date. Meanwhile North Carolina hit the 1-gigawatt mark for installed solar energy in 2015 and Georgia is on track to do the same in 2016. In Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power announced a goal of 400 MW of solar and the legislature authorized the utility to increase that to 500 MW. Meanwhile, several South Carolina utilities rolled out their new program to increase solar installations and access.

These commitments will add new clean energy to the grid, displacing fossil fuels; lower electricity bills for Southerners; and create jobs and much-needed tax revenue for rural communities. Other bright spots include commitments by Google to build two data centers powered 100% by renewable energy in our region; a bold plan by the City of Atlanta to put solar on its buildings, which the City can finance because of legislation SELC helped pass in 2015; and the rising interest by utilities across the region – including electric cooperatives and municipal utilities – in community solar projects that can bring solar power to all customers. 

While the utilities are committing more resources to large-scale projects, in many cases they are simultaneously frustrating individual customers’ ability to go solar. Just this month the board of South Carolina’s publicly owned utility, Santee Cooper, approved what amounts to a fee of $30 per month for an average solarized household. Alabama Power imposes a similar fee on solar-powered homes, and other utilities in the region are proposing to follow suit. These moves by utilities reaffirm the need for greater protections for customers that want to go solar, to ensure that they aren’t penalized but are able to get full and fair payment for the valuable solar power they provide to the grid.

As we move into 2016, utilities are at a crossroads: they can continue to oppose the inevitable growth of distributed energy resources like solar, or they can adopt smarter rate designs that will harness the value of these resources for the good of all customers. As utilities across the Southeast develop their plans, SELC will continue to press for all customers to have real and fair access to homegrown solar power.

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