Rooftop Solar: Good for the Economy, Good for the Grid and Good for Georgians

Tim Echols

Tuesday, July 19th, 2022

Tim Echols is Vice-Chair of the Georgia Public Service Commission. 

Solar continues to create jobs, investment, economic development and grid resilience while reducing energy costs for utilities, businesses, industry and consumers. It reduces the environmental impact on air, water and carbon.  And amazingly, it can be placed atop your house.

Georgia is a national leader when it comes to solar energy. It began in 2013 with who I call the solar trifecta: Commissioner McDonald, the late Commissioner Doug Everett and yours truly. 

The Georgia Public Service Commission created a solar framework and compelled Georgia Power to move forward on solar at scale, and the program has been wildly successful, helping Georgia rank in the top 10 states nationally for total solar installed - but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

While most of that growth has been large-scale solar installations, the next frontier in solar includes significant opportunities for Georgia to build on our success and become a leader in small-scale and rooftop solar, too. Let me explain.

The value of solar systems

In 2019, I offered a motion to our tri-annual rate proceeding with Georgia Power to create a monthly “net metering” pilot program for 5,000 Georgia Power customers. 

Net metering is a crediting policy that makes rooftop solar much more affordable, by allowing customers to use all their homegrown solar on-site to meet their energy needs before buying electricity from their utility. It reduces the payback period by about a third as well.

Simply put, if a customer doesn’t have additional electricity needs while their solar panels are producing, the electricity is pushed back onto the utility’s grid. With net metering in place, that electricity is banked each month. At the end of each monthly billing period, the exported electricity produced on-site is subtracted from the electricity purchased from the utility - giving the rooftop solar customer 100 percent of the value for their homegrown energy. Hence the word “net.”

More value means that solar systems are more affordable and more financeable for families across the state. But without a net metering policy, any excess electricity is exported to the utility’s grid at a low wholesale rate and as a result, that customer does not get the full value of their solar-generated electricity. It was under that scenario that I offered a motion to our Public Service Commission Rate Case proceedings in 2019 to create a monthly netting pilot with a limited number of participants, and study the impact.

Next steps for the program

Pilot programs are all about “learning,” and my net metering pilot offered plenty of lessons including the obvious - people love solar and recognize its immense benefits.

The popularity of the net metering program is a prime example of the public’s support to increase access to rooftop solar. The program became available in January 2020, and the cap had already been met by mid-2021. In other words, we changed the policy and Georgians responded. 

Other lessons about the program are forthcoming including the need to regulate solar installation companies and their practices - especially out-of-state companies using internet advertising.

The future of solar

Here is my theory. With greater access to monthly net metering, we could see much more growth in rooftop solar. We’ve seen net metering lead to significant solar growth in neighboring states. For example, South Carolina has about five times the number of rooftop solar customers with roughly half the population of Georgia. North Carolina and Virginia both have more than four times the number of rooftop solar customers. Look no further than the Thunderbird Motel in Savannah to see an example of solar in action.

Second, rooftop solar is good for business. Small-scale solar makes up about 80% of the solar jobs nationwide. These are small businesses that create local jobs that support local economies. Georgia currently has more than 4,000 solar jobs. By making rooftop solar more accessible, we can create many more employment opportunities for Georgians in construction, marketing, customer service and electrical. Plus, smart rooftop solar policy makes Georgia more attractive to businesses creating a new economic development opportunity.

Third, rooftop solar is a benefit, not a burden, for all of us. Rooftop solar customers generate some electricity themselves, thus lowering their demand, and reducing the amount of electricity that needs to be transmitted to their homes. When customers aren’t home, excess electricity usually flows to their neighbors’ homes, similarly reducing the need for the utility to generate and transmit power from far away through transmission lines. More homegrown solar means that less electricity needs to be generated and sent through transmission lines to homes and businesses. That saves us all money.

Electric vehicles are on the rise - including school buses, light trucks and even forklifts and port vehicles. At the same time, the utilities are wanting to close coal plants across their systems. That means that solar placed on the distribution grid will help fill the gap and insure reliability. Georgia, with a Rivian and Hyundai EV plant coming, may be ground zero for EVs in the south and solar will benefit.

For these reasons and more, solar makes sense for Georgia. With our tri-annual planning going on at the PSC, we have the opportunity to make it easier, not harder, for more Georgians to go solar and further advance our state’s clean energy leadership. Let me hear your thoughts at [email protected]