The South Is Warming Up to Solar

In the past five years, solar capacity in the South has increased nearly thirtyfold.

2.2 MW sub-array at the Old Midville solar project in Millen, Georgia

Credit: Riley Harwood/DOE

The extended forecast is showing some serious sunshine in the South. The region’s solar potential is second only to that of the exceptionally cloudless Southwest, which, along with California, accounts for 77 percent of the country’s solar generation. More and more southerners are feeling it’s high time to close that gap.

Just five years ago, the South was practically a photovoltaic desert, with only 200 megawatts of solar online. By 2017, capacity had skyrocketed to 5,800 megawatts, a nearly thirtyfold increase, according to a recent report from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE). And solar continues to soar, with capacity projected to top 15,000 megawatts by 2021.

“We have been on an exponential trajectory of almost doubling the amount of installed power every year since 2012,” says Bryan Jacob, SACE’s solar program director. “Sometimes solar’s driven from the top down and sometimes from the bottom up. Both are good reasons,” he adds, referring to installations that are regulation-driven and those that are inspired by communities and grassroots groups. Whatever the reasons for installing sun power, the bottom line is that the economics of solar can now compete with those of natural gas and coal.

“Solar really is a mainstream energy source now,” says Matt Beasley, chief marketing officer of Silicon Ranch, a solar developer and operator based in Nashville, Tennessee. “Adoption is only going to increase, and as an industry we’ve only scratched the surface.” The company’s first large-scale project was at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, but more recently Georgia has become Silicon Ranch’s biggest market.

Utility-Scale Solar

About 90 percent of solar power in the Southeast comes from utility-scale projects, according to the SACE report. “We’ve seen a turning point in utilities acknowledging that the economics of solar are compelling—whether or not they like it,” says Katie Ottenweller, head of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s solar initiative.Utilities may not want to make as meaningful an investment in solar as they should, [but] they feel like they should do something.” But even if the South’s solar capacity increases over the next four years as expected, it would still generate only a small fraction―3 percent―of the region’s total electricity.

Installing solar panels on a St. Paul, North Carolina, solar farm
Credit: Tim Dominick/MCT/Newscom

What separates the South’s solar pioneers from the laggards are regulatory and legislative mandates. In the lead is North Carolina with 3 gigawatts of installed solar, making the state second in the nation in terms of capacity after California. Two state laws have propelled solar in Tarheel Country. One is its renewable portfolio standard, the Southeast’s one and only, requiring investor-owned utilities to supply up to 12.5 percent of energy from renewable resources by 2021. The other is a set of favorable terms for independent power providers under the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. The state, however, weakened these rules last year.

Next comes Georgia with 970 megawatts of solar—though as one of the country’s fastest-growing utility-scale solar markets, the state will have much more on the way. In August 2016, the Georgia Public Service Commission, which regulates the state’s utilities, approved Georgia Power’s plan to increase its renewable energy output by 1.6 gigawatts by 2021. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Walmart are procuring solar energy from Georgia Power, and other electricity providers, to meet their own renewable energy goals.

Georgia shouldn’t get comfy in second place. Florida could soon surpass the Peach State in solar capacity. Several major utility-scale projects are in the works to bring 4 gigawatts online by 2021. There’s a reason it’s called the Sunshine State.

And then we have the laggards. Utilities in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, operating in a public policy vacuum, continue to block solar energy’s potential. The combination of outmoded energy plans and low levels of solar adoption leaves them with “projections at less than half of the region average through 2021,” says the SACE report.

Rooftop Solar

Solar panels adorn relatively few southern homes, businesses, and municipal buildings as policy barriers continue to prevent progress for distributed generation, despite consumers’ increasing demand for renewable options.

There is a rising tension between the utilities’ push for large-scale projects and customersdesire for affordable energy choices and the ability to use their rooftop, says Mindy Goldstein, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at Emory University Law School in Atlanta.

Utilities are doubling down on their opposition to rooftop, observes Luis Martinez, an attorney with NRDC’s Climate & Clean Energy program, because they see distributed solar as a threat to their monopoly. They argue that distributed generation, such as rooftop installations, strain the grid and increase their expenses. That may be a valid concern in places like California and Hawaii, where more than 5 percent of the grid’s power comes from rooftops. But in the South, where that figure is less than 1 percent, the utilities’ argument is far less convincing.

For rooftop solar to get off the ground, state policy needs to support two things: third-party leasing and net metering. Third-party leasing would enable customers to install solar panels without paying the full price up front. With net metering, the utilities buy back electricity at the rate it’s sold. South Carolina is currently the only state in the Southeast with retail net metering combined with a leasing market that has matured enough to take off, but Florida is starting to see traction. “When you remove these arbitrary policy barriers, then you start to see an uptake in solar,” says Ottenweller. But this is easier said than done.

Solar panels on a community near Orlando
Credit: Octavio Jones/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

A few weeks ago, a pro-rooftop-solar bill that already had a majority of support in South Carolina’s House of Representatives suffered a sudden and surprising defeat. Over one weekend, the local utilities—SCANA and Duke Energy—suggested that because there was a small provision in the bill related to property taxes, the legislation required a two-thirds majority vote instead of a simple majority. The new voting rule stopped the bill from passing. And this is not the first time utilities have exploited loopholes to stunt rooftop solar.

“It really illustrates how powerful utilities are in the House,” says Ottenweller. “That they have to rely on this procedural technicality is frankly pretty undemocratic.”

On the Horizon

As solar takes off, the next step will be to ensure that it is grown wisely, says Goldstein, who is part of a team determining how to do just that in Georgia. The team’s goal is to develop a solar zoning ordinance that will help county and city officials balance their communities’ solar development with preservation of its culture and native habitats by preventing deforestation and maintaining agricultural spaces.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is the dual use of protected land,” says Goldstein, who imagines a fallow piece of farmland harnessing the sun’s rays as it provides important habitat for pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. “The farmer would continue to grow food [on the rest of his land] and receive a steady income from the solar farm.”

For such eco-friendly sun power projects in the South, the sky is the limit.

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