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Home / Business / The fight for cheap solar power goes to the sunny south – but the energy providers fight back

The fight for cheap solar power goes to the sunny south – but the energy providers fight back



Chuck Jay worked as a coal miner for nearly three decades before deciding in 2012 to start his own solar module installation outside Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He had moved records in his own house a few years ago and was thrilled with the technology – not to mention the money he saved on his electricity bill.

But just as his business hit the scene, Jay and a new customer were surprised by a new indictment from Alabama Power, the state-owned utility. To stay connected to the grid – so that households can return excess electricity on sunny days or draw electricity on rainy, dark days – the customer would have to pay an additional $ 25 to $ 30 per month in fees.

Jay finished the installation, but the new charges have cramped his business. The surcharge consumes almost all the money that its customers would save by solar energy. "It totally changed the dynamics of what I did," he says.

In April, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a complaint against Alabama Power with the State Public Service Regulatory Authority. The lawsuit argues that Alabama Power's fee to small solar users is "unfair, unreasonable, unfair, discriminatory, contrary to the public interest and otherwise unlawful".

"There seems to be a rooftop solar fee penalty from any regulated utility in the country," says Katie Ottenweller, a senior lawyer for SELC and director of the center's Solar Initiative.

Alabama Power has not only tried to throw out the complaint, but also suggested the charge for customers increase their own solar energy by nearly 1

0 percent. Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman says the higher fee would help cover the cost of providing backup services to customers who generate their own energy but stay connected to the grid.

The Barriers of Alabama's Energy Market are Just One Example of the Political, Financial and Regulatory Dynamics That Can Prevent Low and Middle-income Households from Using Solar Power on the Roof to the Southeast. But this tug-of-war between utilities, regulators, and solar energy advocates is not just about money.

"It's a real social justice issue," says Greer Ryan, a renewable energy specialist at the Center for Biodiversity, an Arizona-based environmental organization. "Anything that makes it less economical for people to run solar power will be detrimental to low and middle-income consumers," she says. It's like raising taxes on people who can least afford it – making green energy unreachable to all but the rich.

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Across the country, many low- and middle-income households (those near the region's median income) spend a large portion of their paychecks on utility bills. In large urban agglomerations, the share of income used for energy may be up to three times higher for low-income people than for their higher-income peers, a 2016 report by the American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency Found For All Coalition [19659003] These problems are particularly acute in the southeast, where the poverty rate is high and also the electricity bills.

Alabamian, for example, had the country's second highest average monthly electricity bill in 2016, just behind South Carolina. A number of nearby states, such as Georgia and Tennessee, also had some of the country's highest bills. The long, hot summers fueled the demand for energy-hungry air conditioning systems that identified the Energy Information Administration as the main cost driver.

Rooftop solar can help to reduce these bills, especially as prices for installing systems continue to fall. "Solar energy prices have fallen so dramatically that many people – even in the industry – do not know how cheap they can be," says Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the University for Renewable and Reasonable Energy -Laboratory. The cost of installing and maintaining solar systems has dropped from an average of $ 7.24 per dc-watt in 2010 to only $ 2.80 in 2010, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

So far, however, "The rich have benefited most from the sun's energy," says Kammen. One important reason is that lower income households can not always afford the initial costs of installation. For example, in Alabama, covering your roof with panels averages $ 14,000, Ottenweller says. This is a tough sale in a state where 16 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Some states, especially in the West and Northeast, are taking up this challenge. California is already generating more electricity from the sun than any other country in the country and is pushing to make solar more accessible. The state ordered three utility companies to subsidize the efforts to fund low-income solar systems, the "Single Family Affordable Solar Homes" program.

But other states respond with pushback or inaction, especially in the southeast. Many sunny states could do more to expand Dachsolar, finds a recently published Center for Biodiversity. For example, Tennessee and Alabama do not require a net measurement that will allow solar customers to sell extra energy from their roof panels back to the grid. And Alabama does not have clear policies for solar leasing, which makes it harder for customers to make use of a joint agreement where they pay a monthly flat fee to rent equipment rather than buying everything in advance. Without these guidelines, says Ryan from the Center for Biological Diversity, the roof solar system will remain unreachable for many.

In Louisiana, a solar tax credit used to offset the cost of rooftop installations. This has helped position PosiGen, a solar company that markets to low- and middle-income households, to lower the price of their solar cells. The company is also renovating households to improve their energy efficiency, and the combination of panels and home fixes will allow most customers to save at least 50 percent of their annual energy bill, says PosiGen's vice president of business development and public relations Beth Galante] But Louisiana Budget problems resulted in the tax credit being reversed in 2016. PosiGen then raised its prices. The company has suspended its expansion in the region, says Galante. "As a small company, we focus on expanding into markets that support industry development," she says. It is now turning to Connecticut and New Jersey, two states with solar financial incentives.

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One of the biggest political problems that bring solar energy to the masses is the way utilities are structured. Ryan says. Alabama is one of many states with a "regulated" energy market. In these states, utilities have a monopoly over all phases of the electricity market, from production to distribution, marketing and distribution. If these supply systems discourage residential solar, the residents have few alternatives.

"These utilities have [almost] all the power in determining how electricity is generated and where it comes from," she says.

For example, in the regulated market of North Carolina Non-core utilities may not sell the electricity they generate to homeowners. This policy thwarted a recent effort by NC WARN, a North Carolina-based, non-profit organization committed to renewable energy. The organization purchased a number of solar panels and tried to sell the electricity generated to a local, predominantly African American church in Greensboro. The State Supreme Court ruled last September that the agreement violated the monopoly of regulatory monopolies.

Many of these state monopoly companies have put industrial solar parks into operation and add more solar energy to their energy mix. Southern Company, the parent company of Alabama Power, claims to be one of the largest owners of solar photovoltaic systems in the United States. 27 different farms are in operation or under construction throughout the country. Similarly, Oklahoma's two largest utilities have recently made significant investments in large solar farms.

Despite these efforts, renewable energies still account for well less than half of the energy mix in most countries. In particular, in the southeast, states must not set standards that require utilities to source a percentage of their energy from renewable sources. More solar energy on the roof would allow households to rely almost entirely on green energy.

In addition, solar systems for the house bring other benefits. "Solar energy, which is used directly by people and neighborhoods, creates jobs locally, reduces emissions and can save people money," Ryan said in an e-mail.

The opportunity has come: 42 percent of the country's solar potential is located on the roofs of low and middle income homes, according to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which was released earlier this year.

Utilities argue that if they charge their customers no fee to generate their own solar power The receipt of a large grid infrastructure will increasingly hit other customers and increase electricity prices for all. Fewer low-income families currently use badgers solar, but higher prices would give them the bill for the environmental awareness of wealthy homeowners, Alabama Power's Sznajderman.

This argument theoretically makes sense, says Ryan, but almost no market The United States has so much on the rooftop solar that this has become a problem.

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Even if supportive measures exist, other problems can get in the way. Most panel-panel subsidies apply only to those who own a home or condominium and leave out anyone who can not afford a home.

Collaborative solar projects – local solar systems used by multiple households – are a solution.

Among other things, housing agencies in New York City and Denver have reached such agreements for some social housing residents. In Minnesota, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance worked with Ojibwe's Leech Lake Band to install five groups of small solar panels around its reserve, using a government grant.

Back in Alabama, Ottenweller of SELC waits for it The courts will decide on the additional charges from Alabama Power for Solar. If the complaint is successful, regulators will have to hold a public hearing and possibly withdraw the fee. "We hope that they will take a close look and realize that this has a significant impact," says Ottenweller.

Meanwhile, Jay, the former miner, manages to keep his business afloat. He says that he still loves the technology, but he has shifted his focus to customers who can completely disconnect from the power grid and avoid the additional charges of Alabama Power. He hopes that the electricity company will eventually allow small solar installations to start in the state. But this shift takes time, he says. "We just have to go through the education curve."


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