This July Georgia Power, the Southern Co. subsidiary that supplies almost all of the electricity in Georgia, is diving into rooftop solar power. The move comes as solar has become more popular in the southeastern U.S. and more utilities are finding ways in which they can compete or remain in control of distributed energy generation.
Georgia’s Solar Power Free Market Financing Act, which becomes effective on July 1, will allow third-party ownership in the state and Georgia Power plans to be one of the companies offering that financing. As long ago as last year Southern CEO Tom Fanning told EnergyWire: “If somebody wants to buy distributed generation, I want to sell it to ‘em." He added to that sentiment during last year’s shareholder meeting, when he said the company would consider providing financing as well.“The decision for Georgia Power is significant,” wrote EnergyWire reporters Kristi E. Swartz and Rod Kuckro. “The utility is one of four regulated electric companies that Southern owns. All are used to getting electricity from centralized sources and have been resistant to renewables, especially distributed ones.”
They also observed that Fanning has opposed other companies entering its market to offer third-party ownership in the state. He contended that he thought Georgia Power can do a better job of servicing its customer base with distributed solar than other companies.
Similar moves are being made in other markets, like Arizona, where at least two of the state’s largest utilities, APS and TEP, are starting to install solar power on homes themselves. APS, for instance, earlier this year announced a plan to put solar on 1,500 low income homes, while TEP planned to install solar panels on 500 to 600 homes.
The APS program was pared down somewhat. Last year it announced a plan to install solar on 3,000 homes, crediting the homeowners $30 a month for a 20-year lifespan. At that time Ken Johnson, vice president of communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) said: “After attacking rooftop solar companies in Arizona relentlessly for more than a year, this latest tactic by APS has a ‘Trojan Horse’ smell to it. Our member companies welcome fair and equal competition, but this move would stack the deck in favor of a company which can rate base solar with a guaranteed rate of return. How is that fair?”
GTM Research’s Julia Pyper summed up the controversy in a piece this month, as well. “It’s a polarizing question. On the one hand, supporters say utility-owned rooftop solar will increase access to clean energy, while reducing strain on the grid and saving money for all ratepayers. On the other, opponents say utility rooftop solar programs are expensive and unfair, viewing them as veiled efforts to capitalize on a growing market that threatens the traditional utility business model,” she wrote. Pyper added that solar industry advocates, like Johnson said, interpret this as a way to quell competition from third-party companies like SolarCity.
Then again it also shows that solar and distributed solar power are becoming more important for utilities to address, and that they have to adapt, rather than sticking to the same generation model utilities have relied on for more than 100 years.Tweet