Some solar energy customers feeling burn of surprise charges
When Macon resident Stan Hutchinson decided to install solar panels at his home in 2015, one of the tipping points to do so was a rebate that Central Georgia EMC offered.
The combination of incentives plus the environmentally friendly form of energy appealed to him. Even with a federal tax credit, though, the solar panels were still a sizable investment: about $18,000.
For about a year and a half everything appeared to be going well — until January, when the utility added a tariff for solar use that’s increased his bill by about $52 a month. Central Georgia also lowered the tax credit that solar customers receive for excess power, Hutchinson said.
“I feel very victimized,” he said. “I can’t do anything about it. It’s not like I can go to another power company. It’s not like I have a voice.”
He added, “I was shooting toward having it break even. … Some months I literally will pay more than a non-solar customer.”
According to the Georgia Solar Energy Association, the burgeoning solar energy industry could be under threat if it takes customers such as Hutchinson decades to recoup their investment. The association helps consumers with decisions on solar energy and helps them evaluate their solar options.
The association says some utility companies need to reverse a recent course in which people spending thousands of dollars on solar panels are now facing unexpected financial hurdles: The companies are tacking on new fees to customers who are also receiving a lower reimbursement for the power they sell back to the grid.
Central Georgia EMC says it’s now examining ways to change how electricity rates are assessed. The company said in a statement that it faces the challenge of keeping other customers from having to subsidize the solar energy services. Central Georgia has about 54,000 accounts across 14 counties, including Bibb, Butts, Jones, Lamar, Monroe and Putnam counties.
The solar industry in Georgia employs about 4,000 people and has experienced more than 20 percent job growth the last couple of years. Georgia ranks No. 8 in the country in terms of cumulative solar capacity installed, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives and municipal electric authorities account for about 50 percent of the utility industry in Georgia. They don’t have the same regulatory oversight as Georgia Power Co. with the state Public Service Commission, said Don Moreland, chairman of the Georgia Solar Energy Association.
In some cases, solar power customers are “seeing the time they recoup their money go from 10 years to 80 years or sometimes even more,” Moreland said.
“The implications if this were to stand and continue are dire for the entire state solar industry,” he said. “This completely ruins their investments, but what it also does is send a chill throughout the solar industry as far as new installations.
“It’s kind of hard to sell something that’s not going to pay off for 100 years.”
“What we say is they’re infusing their monopoly power to quell any additional solar installations,” Moreland said. “This has been going on for a year now, and it’s mostly been the municipal co-ops (charging) such fees. But this is the first one seen on this scale at Central Georgia EMC.”
Central Georgia EMC counters that the tariff it charges consumers based on the size of the solar installation is designed to prevent other customers from subsidizing solar power services.