Southeast solar seeks allies as PURPA changes loom

Source: By Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 30, 2019

ATLANTA — Big business may be the key to expanding solar in the Southeast as momentum builds to change a decades-old federal law designed to boost renewable energy.

Solar developers are courting corporations like Facebook as part of a shift away from relying on a Carter administration-era law that has served as the backbone for renewable energy growth. As major companies set 100% renewable energy goals, solar power providers see potential not only for new customers but also for political allies in their fight to enact more solar-friendly policies throughout the region.

“The corporate customers I talk to, they want to be involved” in regulatory change, said Alex Hay, regional director of Durham, N.C.-based Strata Solar LLC, at the Southeast Renewable Energy Conference here. “[In] a lot of the Southeast that isn’t possible right now, and I think that does limit the market.”

At issue is the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA). Broadly, the federal law requires utilities to purchase energy from small-scale developers.

Some states are changing the framework for PURPA’s so-called standard-offer contracts, creating new battles between giant electric companies and solar developers. Others have taken a hands-off approach.

Federal regulators are eyeing their own updates to PURPA, a move that isn’t getting a warm reception in a region that doesn’t like interference from Washington.

“When [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] comes out with a ruling, we have to really dissect it very carefully,” said Georgia Public Service Commission Chairman Lauren “Bubba” McDonald. “We have different states, different makeup, and one broad brush doesn’t make it right for everybody.”

States that view renewable energy policy as an economic development tool are poised to win more business from large corporations, said Luke Wilkinson, project development vice president for Nashville, Tenn.-based Silicon Ranch Corp. He cited Georgia and Tennessee as two examples.

“Companies aren’t going to move … if they don’t think they can get access to the type of power at the prices that they want,” he said.

A chief challenge to the region is that it is a patchwork of energy policies, with much of the work left to state utility regulators. They set renewable energy policies that apply only to regulated electric companies, leaving out municipal utilities and electric cooperatives.

Asked to rank the top three states for solar growth in the Southeast, each of the four developers speaking on an afternoon panel about utility-scale solar gave different answers.

The Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia were all mentioned. Alabama was not.

The Alabama Public Service Commission in 2015 approved a request from Southern Co.’s Alabama Power to add up to 500 megawatts of solar to the grid through 2021. That has led to utility-scale solar projects at military bases across the state, said Commissioner Jeremy Oden.

Oden, a Republican, played up the role of politics in shaping energy policy in a state that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump for president.

“I just have to let you know the reality of where we’re at,” said Oden.