Georgia law keeps power customers from saving with solar energy

by: Justin Farmer Updated:

SB 401 had bi-partisan support, but it was opposed by Georgia Power and killed by Sen. Ross Tolleson, who said his committee needed more time to study a bill that could have a major impact on both Georgia Power and consumers.
ATLANTA —

Supporters say it could save some people big on their electric bills, but leasing solar panels in Georgia isn't worth it because of a current state law.

Critics believe it gives Georgia Power a solar monopoly and prevents consumers from saving money.

Jeff Sain installed solar panels on his Dunwoody house because his electric bill was nearly $600 a month in the summer. With solar his Georgia Power bill plummeted.

"The first month's power bill, I saved 91 percent on my power bill," Sain said.

Purchasing solar panels required a big outlay of cash. Sain spent $32,000.

But companies in 14 states now offer systems that can be leased with no upfront costs. However, you get less in savings because you have split it with the leasing company providing the equipment.

"Typical savings if you lease panels as people do in other states will be 30 to 50 percent of your power bill," Consumer advocate Clark Howard said.

California is one state that has expanded leasing. There solar panels are no longer just for the wealthy. Panels are springing up on roofs all over the state.

"I wish I could have paid for it up front it would have been great but I couldn't afford it," homeowner Brian Griffin said.

Griffin had solar installed on his home near San Francisco. He pays a leasing company, Solar City, a fixed rate of $180 every month. His last electric bill before solar panels was $267.

"Our new bill after solar put in was only $4.43," Griffin said.

Solar City makes money selling the extra power Griffin doesn't need to power his house back to Pacific Gas and Electric.

Customers can get solar installed with nothing down or put money down and save more. Griffin put down $3,000.

"He's going to save 25 percent net after he pays solar lease on average," Solar City spokesman Jonathan Bass said.

In Georgia, consumers can lease solar panels but many companies don't offer it because it's illegal for anyone but Georgia Power to trade in electric power.

Senate Bill 401 would have made it legal for solar companies to sell excess energy. The bill had bi-partisan support but Georgia Power opposed it and the bill was shelved for 2012.

"The reason they opposed it is they know there would be far more solar installed in Georgia. They are frightened of that," Howard said.

Georgia Power said its electric rates are some of the lowest in country. They said California rates are 70-80 percent higher and allowing other companies to trade electricity would send rates skyrocketing.

"What works in California or New Jersey may not work in Georgia, and I don't think those are models we need to emulate here. I don't think we want to pay those kind of rates here in Georgia," said Greg Roberts with Georgia Power.

The explanation isn't good enough for Georgia consumers who want to lease solar.

"It's crazy to see all the people in California able to do it and I say why can't we do it?" Bobby Dansingi of Sandy Springs said.

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Dansingi was excited about getting into solar without a big cash outlay. He was disappointed that state lawmakers failed to pass Senate Bill 401 and make solar more available to consumers.

"It's one of those things that dumbfound you and you don't understand why," Dansingi said. "It just makes sense if you can save every month why not"?
This year State Senate Bill 401 was introduced. It would have allowed leasing companies to sell excess electricity back to Georgia Power and help make leasing a cheap option Georgia homeowners.

SB 401 had bi-partisan support, but it was opposed by Georgia Power and killed by Sen. Ross Tolleson, who said his committee needed more time to study a bill that could have a major impact on both Georgia Power and consumers.

"You don't want to go two years from now and go, 'Oops, we made a bad mistake,'" Tolleson said.

Tolleson said opening the solar market to competition would make electric bills jump 15 to 20 percent.

"To have another third party seller of electricity would work against the system we have and make everybody's rates go up," Tolleson said.

But solar advocates disagree. They said that solar is no threat to Georgia Power, pointing out solar only provides less than one percent of electric needs in Georgia.

"Let's increase that by tenfold how is that going to raise rates by 15-20 per cent? It simply just isn't true," Jessica Moore of the Georgia Solar Energy Association said.

Tolleson said his committee may take another look at SB 401 next year.

In the meantime, customers like Dansingi wants to cheaply lease solar panels. He said it's time to update laws to make solar more widespread in Georgia.

"Lets get with the rest of the country and get things going in the right direction," Dansingi said.

Wednesday, the Georgia Public Service Commission weighed in on this issue. It gave approval to state legislators to change the law to allow other utility companies to enter the solar business in Georgia.

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