By Kyle G. Crider
Alabamians are overwhelmingly in favor of their utilities boosting the use of solar energy to generate electricity, and they are nearly unanimous in their opposition to penalizing solar by tacking on fees, according to a new survey conducted by the Alabama Solar Knowledge Project.
More than 1,600 Alabamians responded to the informal survey by the ASK Project, a collaborative initiative of the Alabama Solar Association, the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, Alabama Environmental Council and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Government. The results underscore the broad public support for a transition to clean energy, said Doug Elgin, president of the Alabama Solar Association.
“The energy landscape is changing quickly all across the United States. The price of solar energy is falling dramatically, and every day, more and more residents and businesses are turning to it,” Elgin said. “Everyone should have the freedom of choice to take advantage of solar energy.”
The strength of the survey response leaves little doubt that Alabamians want more solar for their homes and businesses. Out of more than of 1,600 responses to the survey, 78 percent picked solar as one of the top two sources of energy that they would like to see their utility use more of in Alabama. Wind came in second as the next most-preferred energy source, with 34 percent of the respondents selecting it as one of their top two choices.
A study conducted several years ago by researchers at Arizona State University placed Alabama eighth nationally in terms of states that would benefit the most from expanding solar energy deployment. Alabama currently ranks 48th in both installed solar capacity and the total number of solar jobs per capita, which Jeff Cantin, president of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, said “leaves a lot of room for growth.”
“The deep South, especially Alabama, has great solar potential that has gone untapped for too long,” Cantin said.
A lack of policies to promote solar growth is a major reason that Alabama is falling behind other states. Georgia, for example, recently enacted the Solar Power Free Market Financing Act, a law that took effect on July 1 and will make it easier for consumers to add solar to homes and businesses. Two years ago, the Georgia Public Service Commission required Georgia Power to triple the 210 megawatts of solar that the company wanted to add its supply. As a result of actions like these, Georgia, which has a solar potential almost identical to Alabama’s, is now on pace to quadruple its amount of installed solar capacity this year over 2014. More than $110 million has been invested in Georgia solar since the beginning of last year, and the state now has almost 3,000 solar-related jobs, six times as many as Alabama.
“The Southeast is making huge strides in developing affordable solar energy and creating new jobs in the process,” Cantin said. “Alabama is the last to jump on the bandwagon, but there is great potential for consumer savings, business opportunities and economic development.”
Alabama is one of only four states in the nation without ‘net metering’ policies, which allow customers to generate their own electricity from solar and receive credit for energy that flows back into the grid. Net metering is considered the simplest, fairest way for states to accommodate solar in their energy mix. Alabama is also one of 13 states with no renewable energy standard, which would set long-term targets for solar energy development.
In fact, much of Alabama is penalized for developing solar. Alabama Power requires customers who add solar to their home or business to pay an extra monthly fee of $25 to $50 or more, despite the many documented benefits that solar provides to the grid. This monthly fee of $5 per kilowatt of capacity is one of the largest of its kind in the country and affects roughly two-thirds of Alabama. In contrast, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which delivers power to the northern third of Alabama, pays families and businesses to install rooftop solar and generate their own power.
In the ASK survey, 94 percent of respondents said they disapprove of the solar fee, and 80 percent said they strongly disapprove.
Respondents also said overwhelmingly that: they would like their utility to provide more information about the energy sources such as solar, wind, coal and natural gas that the company uses(86 percent want more information); and that bill-paying customers should be allowed to participate in planning decisions about energy.
“We have great solar potential in Alabama, and resources at UAB like our state-of-the-art GIS capabilities can be used to optimize how solar power is distributed,” said Associate Prof. Akhlaque Haque, director of UAB’s Master of Public Administration Program. “But we need a more supportive policy landscape to be able to capitalize on these resources.”
The ASK survey was conducted online this spring and promoted through ASK’s Facebook page. In all, 1,618 Alabamians responded from every part of the state, with the largest concentration of responses coming from Birmingham and central Alabama (31 percent), followed by Mobile and southwest Alabama (15 percent), Huntsville and northeastern Alabama (15 percent), Northwestern Alabama (12 percent), eastern Alabama (8 percent), Montgomery and the surrounding region (7 percent), Tuscaloosa and the surrounding region (6 percent) and southern Alabama (5 percent).
A full copy of the survey results is available at this link.
Kyle G. Crider is Energy Project Manager for the Alabama Environmental Council and the Alabama Solar Knowledge project. Kyle holds a bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND).