Solar Access Expands in the Southeast

The Sun Belt offers great possibilities for solar power development. And in many states of the deep South, residential customers stand to gain massively from increased access to affordable renewable energy.

The Southeast is home to much of the nation’s worst sustained poverty. Its low-income consumers have some of the highest energy burdens in the country, according to American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “Energy burden” is defined as the percentage of household income that goes toward energy costs.

Many states in the region maintain detrimental policy frameworks. Innovation is needed across the board to ensure solar power’s benefits are accessible to all customers.

However, in the past five years, the region has seen tremendous gains in solar energy with the development of new technologies and growing advocacy. According to the 2017 annual report from Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, “Solar in the Southeast,” regional solar capacity has doubled during each of the past several years and is slated to grow further.

Policy measures are central in determining where solar markets can develop.

According to Dan Chwastyk, utility strategy manager at Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), “Historically, what has driven the solar market the most has been state policy.”

And even when renewable policy standards are adopted, the benefits of energy savings are often unattainable to those who need them most. While utility-scale solar projects have driven the bulk of solar power’s growth in the South, robust community solar programs can help expand solar access, especially in underserved communities.

Unfortunately, Smart Electric Power Alliance found that only two states in the Southeast, North Carolina and South Carolina, have implemented shared solar policies to facilitate the growth of community solar programs.

A 2018 report from the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center said that “Within the nine states covered by the Community Solar for the Southeast project, there are 472 electric cooperatives and municipal utilities, with over 50 community solar projects in place or under consideration. However, we are not aware of any projects specifically serving low-income households.”

South Carolina has emerged as a leader in policy changes to expand the ability of regular customers to access solar. In 2014, the legislature passed Act 236, which opened the state to solar leasing and set net metering at 2 percent.

Traditional energy utilities have resisted these changes, but their implemented success has proven essential in contributing to solar power’s growth.

Anne Tazewell, special projects manager at the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, also said North Carolina’s renewable portfolio standard is successful. “If other states had that, the industry would be blossoming.” The policy requires development of renewable sources and offers tax abatements. However, many neighboring states have not embraced these proactive policies, stymying broader possibilities for growth.

Katie Ottenweller, senior attorney and solar initiative leader at the Southern Environmental Law Center, also identified innovations in storage methods as a major development in the market.

Chwastyk said he agrees. “The greatest driver of solar in the next five years is going to be storage.”

Industry estimates predict that the market for energy storage is growing substantially. If solar providers can ensure greater storage and efficiency, access will be able to dramatically expand in the South and across the nation.

Policy reforms to incentivize solar can also be implemented at the local level. Ottenweller also says that municipal commitments to reach 100-percent renewable energy can be a game changer for solar’s presence in the South. She said these cities can be “a beacon on the hill” in states where major utilities and legislatures are not taking proactive measures.

With sound policy and innovative nongovernmental actors, working families have been able to take advantage of the benefits solar energy can provide.

For instance, PosiGen has become a leader in accessible solar installations, especially in New Orleans, La. Installation requires no money down. The company’s customers have a less than 0.4-percent default rate. Paying a monthly lease for the technology, customers benefit from lower electricity bills.

Since 2011, the company has expanded across the country with its accessible model.

Across many states in the southeast, consumers are now increasingly able to directly reap the benefits of solar. In the video below, Jacqui McLeish, a customer of SolarWorks4SC, said that solar panels with no upfront cost were “a no-brainer” and are saving her 40 percent of her monthly energy bill.

Ottenweller said these proposals can garner a diverse array of supporters. In many Southern states, some typically conservative groups, including property rights advocates, have been “instrumental” in getting pro-solar policies passed.

This is crucial because, according to Tazwell, “anything that’s not business as usual is difficult to do” when advocating for change in complex energy markets.

While some states have emerged as solar leaders in the area, other legislatures have consistently blocked renewable solutions. Some utilities have also blocked them.

As the price of solar continues to decrease and innovation grows, the prospect will likely become more attractive to regional companies, lawmakers and customers.

With collaborative policy reforms, expanded solar access could simultaneously enhance Southern sustainability and bring energy costs down for working families.

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