Southeast starts to love the sun, even if policies don’t always help 

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, May 11, 2015

ATLANTA — The Southeast is the largest growth market for solar in the United States, but a patchwork of renewable energy policies in those states sometimes makes it difficult to do business across the entire region, solar company representatives said here yesterday.The falling cost of panels and installation combined with some states changing laws to become more solar friendly have put the Southeast in the renewable energy spotlight. But consistent policies on tax credits, solar power sellers and mandates are needed, solar developers argue.”One of the things we look at in a market is consistency of policy,” said Jim Rice, CEO of New Jersey-based Nautilus Solar Energy.

Rice was a panelist at the first Solar Power Southeast, organized by two major industry groups, the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Solar Electric Power Association. Nearly 400 people attended the all-day sessions on utility policy, Southeast business opportunities and taxes.

The conference falls during a week where changes in solar have made news in several Southeastern states. Mississippi Power announced another utility-scale project in a state that once had no solar to speak of but is considering a net metering policy that would let customers sell solar power back to the grid and receive bill credit for it (EnergyWire, April 9).

The North Carolina House just passed a bill that would freeze the state’s renewable energy standard in favor of a study committee to look at new policies, however.

Broadly, South Carolina utilities are planning to add solar to the grid to follow a new state law that allows for long-term financing arrangements of solar panels and net metering. Florida, however, has made strides in utility-scale solar but has restrictive policies when it comes to homeowners and businesses having rooftop solar arrays.

Despite the inconsistent policies, developers say the region is maturing, and the market continues to approach grid parity.

“What we’re seeing in the Southeast is very consistent to what we’re seeing in other regions,” said Matt Card, vice president of global sales and marketing for Suniva Inc., a solar manufacturer based just north of Atlanta. “The movement in the Southeast has been probably at the same pace, just behind, sequentially, other markets.”

Georgia on industry’s mind

Georgia was at the forefront of much of the discussion yesterday as a bill to let consumers enter into long-term financing agreements for small, distributed solar systems awaits the governor’s signature. Panelists brought up the bill (H.B. 57) at nearly every session (EnergyWire, March 30).

The state already is moving toward having 1 gigawatt of solar by the end of 2016 because of a Georgia Power program that focuses mostly on utility-scale projects.

“We’re just as happy to see what’s happening in Georgia … where it’s a little bit more organic,” said Roger Bredder, director of business development and project finance for California-based First Solar.

First Solar has more than 1,000 megawatts of solar projects that will be installed in the Southeast over a three-year period.

“We’re now in a market where you have to have a very sharp pencil, you have to drive every cost out of these projects. As that happens, the market opens up.”

Georgia’s governor has until Monday to sign the solar-financing bill. It would become law without his signature, however.

Some local solar developers are using H.B. 57 to scout for new business opportunities, while others are still interpreting the legislation’s details. State utility regulators also have been warning customers to beware of new solar contractors popping up who are just scam artists.

Large solar companies that use some sort of a financing agreement as their business model — including Duke Energy Renewables, NRG Energy Inc., SunEdison, SunPower Corp. and Sunrun Inc. — were on the list of registered attendees for the conference. No major outside solar company has formally said it wants to enter Georgia, however.

Some companies, such as Solar City Corp. and Sunrun, said Georgia needs to offer net metering, allowing customers to sell power back at a one-to-one retail rate, as well as change some of its tax laws, before they consider the state a viable market.

Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, has yet to enter the rooftop solar market either as a panel provider or as a partner in long-term financing. The company is laying the groundwork in some way, however, based on previous comments from executives.

Ervan Hancock, Georgia Power’s manager of renewable development implementation, said yesterday there could be a role for utilities to own rooftop solar assets.

“Whether it makes sense for our customers versus a bank that has a lower cost of capital, that’s something that the market is going to need to flesh out what the most competitive financing structure is going to be,” Hancock said. “But I think there’s a role nonetheless for the utility to facilitate third-party ownership whether that’s on the utility’s balance sheet or facilitate that to a more attractive financing. There are different models out there.”

In the near term, Georgia Power is preparing to file information for developers to take advantage of the last 100 MW of distributed generation projects under the utility’s popular Advanced Solar Initiative program (EnergyWire, March 18). Some of the projects will be chosen by a lottery while others will be based on competitive bidding.

Hancock said he hopes that filing will include some guidance on where solar projects would work best. This may include areas that don’t already have other solar arrays planned and ones that wouldn’t require the utility to do system upgrades, he said.

“We want to give them guidance on whether [a project] is high risk based upon what we know today, just to be responsive,” Hancock told EnergyWire.

Going forward, the company has started work on its next long-term Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) that utility regulators and others will review next year. It’s unclear right now how much of a role solar or other renewable fuels will play, but Hancock said the planning process is one way for Georgia Power to consider new technologies, such as ones that apply to solar.

“As we get comfortable and technology continues to mature and can provide ancillary services … we’ll actually need those benefits to be provided,” he said, referring to technologies such as storage and smart inverters, which can help regulate voltage.

“That’s what we’re continuing to evolve to,” he said.