Thanks to plenty of warm Georgia sun, flowers thrive in Nick Palumbo’s front yard in Savannah. Vegetables grow out back.
“We’ve got some nice sun in the crux of it and a southern-facing house and kind of always the dream has always been to be able to get a solar panel up there and save some bucks just by pointing at the sun,” Palumbo, who is a Savannah city alderman, said on a recent morning before showing Seth Gunning of Creative Solar around the place.
“We’d be delighted to help you power it with the sun and lower your utility bills,” Gunning said.
After a look at the power meter and the circuit breaker, he deemed Palumbo’s house a great spot for rooftop solar.
So they sat down to talk specifics, which is when things got a bit more complicated.
In Gunning’s first estimate, the monthly cost of the panels combined with Palumbo’s Georgia Power electric bill would save him money: about $25 each month.
But there’s a catch: This first estimate is for a rooftop solar pilot program that just hit the customer limit imposed by state regulators. Without that program, Palumbo would no longer be saving more.
“You’re essentially paying $15 a month to have solar on the home,” Gunning said.
Palumbo replied simply, “Damn.”
The difference is in how Georgia Power handles the energy that consumers’ solar panels generate.
In general, you’re not going to use all your solar power as the panels make it. Unless you have a battery to store it, which adds a lot to the cost, your unused solar power goes out to the grid. And you’re going to need to buy power when the sun isn’t shining.
“Every time the customer, the rooftop solar customer, pushed any of its solar energy up to the grid, that energy would be tagged at a low wholesale price,” said Jill Kysor of the Southern Environmental Law Center.
In other words, Georgia Power will buy your extra solar energy for just under three cents per kilowatt-hour. But when the sun isn’t out, you’ll pay the utility four times as much for the same energy.
Company buys power, sells it back for more
Starting last year, and until a few weeks ago, things were much different. Georgia Power would add up what your solar panels generate and the electricity you bought from them, and you’d simply pay the difference.
In short, a kilowatt-hour from your roof was worth as much as a kilowatt-hour from Georgia Power.
But that program had a limit of 5,000 customers, and the state has hit the limit. That’s why instead of saving money with rooftop solar, Nick Palumbo might have to pay extra for it.
“They were helping their neighbors,” Public Service Commission Vice Chair Tim Echols said of people who invested in their own solar systems. “They were being part of the solution. Why penalize them? Why go to war with them? Why demonize them?”
“I found that the power company was a little bit hostile to rooftop solar folks” when he joined the PSC in 2011, Echols said.
Echols pushed for the plan with the equal exchange of power, known as monthly netting. He also capped the program at 5,000 customers, he said as a way to get other commissioners on board.
Limits may cost jobs
Rooftop solar exploded in popularity under the pilot program. It also created jobs. Now that it’s hit the limit, customers are getting cold feet and solar companies say their business will suffer.
“People are going to lose their jobs and customers are going to be very unhappy,” said Don Moreland, owner of Solar Crowdsource. Other solar companies said they’ve already had customers back out or decide to delay.
The PSC is scheduled to reconsider the cap next year. That’s fine with Georgia Power. But solar installers and clean energy advocates want them to raise the limit now.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson pointed to Georgia Power’s other renewable energy efforts, including large solar farms. Customers can pay for the power those farms generate, but the markup could cost them hundreds of dollars a year — an ironic price to pay for energy from the sun.
This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.