Georgia Power says customers with solar panels on their homes or businesses who don’t opt into the company’s Advanced Solar Initiative need to start paying an extra fee on their power bill.
The energy monopoly has asked the Georgia Public Service Commission for permission to raise its rates an average of $8 monthly for residential customers. Coupled with that is a request to charge an extra $22 monthly on the typical home solar system.
Customers can apply to become part of the initiative, a solar energy purchase program, but spots are limited. Homes or businesses that rely completely on solar power and disconnect from the utility’s grid would be unaffected.
The PSC is expected to vote on the request in mid-December and heard testimony from the power company this week. If approved, the hike would go into effect in January.
John Kraft, Georgia Power spokesman, says the fee is needed because solar customers buy less power from the utility but still require access to the grid and other infrastructure.
“They don’t want to go into the dark so they want us to instantly provide a seamless amount of power,” Kraft said.
Most solar homes do not generate enough electricity to rely exclusively on the panels. Kraft says usually homes still need to be connected to a utility’s system for power at night or on cloudy days when less solar power is produced.
“It means we have to have power on standby to serve that need in case it comes up,” Kraft said.
The rate increase for traditional customers would last three years and is the first request since 2010 when the service commission approved another request for a three-year increase.
Georgia Power would earn a profit of between 10.25 percent and 12.25 percent for every dollar it invests in its system under the proposal. If profits exceeded the top range, customers would get back two-thirds of the excess collections. Georgia Power CFO Ron Hinson said those profit levels are necessary to attract shareholders whose cash is used to build and maintain an electric system serving nearly 2.4 million customers.
Kraft says the company’s rates have been below the national average for the last 26 years. Inflation has increased 76 percent since 1990, he said, but base rates have gone up just 26 percent.
Paying for the sun
Mike Jones opted to install solar panels on his 3,600-square-foot home in west Cobb two years ago.
An initial $50,000 investment is paying for itself, Jones said, as his power bill that once ranged from $400 to $500 has dropped to between zero dollars and $200 each month.
Jones isn’t a Georgia Power customer and uses Cobb EMC, but he says it doesn’t make sense for the state’s largest utility to charge more for solar power because the utility gets power back from its solar customers.
“If they’re going to charge you more for doing something, why don’t they pay you more for providing power?” Jones asked.
When homes or businesses with solar power connect to a utility’s grid, excess energy is given back to the power company.
Georgia Power argues that’s not enough.
“Solar or wind, for instance, are intermittent. We can’t count on a certain amount of solar at any given time due to clouds, storms, etc.,” Kraft said. “Also, solar generation tends to peak by 2 p.m. and then declines. Our system peak is between 5 and 7 p.m., so at the period of greatest strain, solar systems are back to pulling from Georgia Power.”
Solar energy is becoming a popular option because of increasing electric rates and environmental concerns. Though panels still carry a heft price tag, government incentives and tax rebates are making the cost more affordable.
Deidra Hodges is a professor at Southern Polytechnic State University who installed solar panels on her Hiram home last year. Of the $26,000 she spent on the 26 panels, about 75 percent she got back in government incentives and rebates.
Her power bill dropped dramatically from an average of $150 monthly on her 1,800-square foot home. Now, she occasionally gets credits back from her power provider, GreyStone Power Corp., because she gives the company more electricity than she takes.
Though she pays an administrative fee of around $25 to GreyStone, she’s skeptical of Georgia Power’s rationale for charging solar customers an extra fee.
“Show us why there’s such a big cost,” Hodges said. “Is it really that high or is that you don’t want to accept the solar power from customers?”
While Georgia Power says its costs are rising, Southern Co., its parent company, reported $297 million in net income during the three-month period ending in June. Those earnings were down 52 percent compared to last year, mostly because of losses on building a coal gasification plant in Mississippi.
Solar may have an added cost, Hodges said, but so do other forms of energy.
“The government supports coal right now, which makes it affordable and the government supports solar power which makes it affordable,” Hodges said.
Is solar the future?
Traditional electricity comes from non-renewable fossil resources, like gasoline and coal, and when those resources run out, Hodges said, energy prices are going to jump.
“I do believe we need another solution, another approach,” Hodges said. “I do believe it’s in the alternatives.”
Hodges says there will be resistance from oil companies and utilities who fear more sustainable options might affect their bottom line.
“Solar is part of the solution. It’s not the solution,” Hodges said. “I believe the solution is just alternative energy.”
Still, it’s an expensive option that traditional customers shouldn’t have to subsidize with their tax dollars because of fears over “some non-existent global warming thing,” said Patti Gettinger, director of energy policy for the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-solar customers to subsidize a higher cost for customers who have chosen that,” Gettinger said.
Gettinger maintains that she isn’t against alternative energy, but she’s skeptical about solar power’s reliability and costs.
Solar power is costly for property owners to install and, she said, generates energy at only about 20 percent of its capacity. That number drops even lower at night or when the sky is cloudy.
Gettinger says solar power hurts traditional customers because it causes rates to increase across the board. There’s a push, she said, to force utility companies to use more solar power for environmental reasons.
“‘Kill coal’ is sort of the mantra of the day, which makes absolutely no sense to me,” Gettinger said.
Environmentally conscious low-income homeowners and apartment dwellers may want their utility to use more solar power but don’t have the money or the space to install panels on their own.
“I get that, but there are a lot of things we want and don’t have the money for or don’t have a place to put it,” Gettinger said. “You can’t have a pony in an apartment.”
She takes issue with forcing a utility to buy something.
“Who has authority to do that?” Gettinger said.
Georgia Power is regulated by the Georgia Public Service Commission because it operates as a state-protected monopoly. But Georgia has more than 100 electric utilities, Gettinger said, and has chosen to subject itself to that regulation in exchange for having a larger territory.
“If you hate Georgia Power so much, maybe that’s another choice that you make as far as where you live and where you get your power from,” Gettinger said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.