Perhaps one of Alabama’s best kept secrets is that the sun shines here just like it does in other Sunbelt states. That’s the conclusion you might draw based on the state’s lackluster performance in the solar energy sector. Alabama has long lagged behind the rest of the nation in its commitment to clean, renewable energy like wind and solar.
Just last year the Alabama legislature blocked significant wind projects from getting off the ground in Etowah and Cherokee counties. And Solar Power Rocks ranked Alabama 48th in its 2015 United States Solar Power Rankings. “Alabama is yet another state with plenty of sun that fails at promoting clean, reliable solar power,” they wrote. “With no legislative action, homeowners hungry for solar are left with few options in Alabama.”
A New Day?
Yesterday, Alabama Power announced that it has filed a petition with the Alabama Public Service Commission for “up to 500 megawatts of generation from renewable resources, including solar.” The company is asking the PSC to approve various projects of up to 80 megawatts that could add up to 500 megawatts.
If the commissioners approve the plan, Alabama Power would be allowed to build its own renewable energy projects, including solar and wind, or purchase clean energy from other sources. According to the company’s announcement, the proposal was the result of “conversations with customers” — that is, consumers are demanding clean, renewable energy.
In the PSC filing, Alabama Power explains that the plan will help to bolster Alabama’s reputation and provide a much-needed economic boost. “The ability of the Company to respond to customers in this respect helps promote the continued supply of cost effective electric service by protecting existing loads and enhancing the chances of the state’s leaders attracting new industry and growing the job base for citizens.”
Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman told al.com, however, that the company’s plan is geared towards its corporate customers, and not residential. “This is kind of a first step to try to work more aggressively with a portion of our customer base to provide renewables and predominantly solar.”
Clean Power Plan Looming
The announcement from Alabama Power comes just weeks before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to release the final draft of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which seeks to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants in an effort to curb the effects of climate change.
The overall goal of the CPP is to reduce carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels. States have the flexibility to determine how best to comply with the new rules — such as retiring dirty, outdated coal-fired units or generating more electricity via clean, renewable energy like wind and solar.
Nick Sellers, Alabama Power vice president of regulatory and corporate affairs, said that the company’s move to invest in more renewable energy projects is a result of customer demand and the declining costs of providing clean energy. “We’ve got customer interest in renewables, and particularly in solar right now. […] As those costs continue to come down over time, I think you will see some growth in the renewable area. That’s the key for us – we want to make sure our resources are cost-effective for customers.”
The Solar Energy Industries Association says, “While residential costs have dropped by 45 percent since 2010, utility-scale costs have dropped more significantly, with recent contracts at prices below $0.05/kWh.”
According to the EPA, the CPP will “lead to climate and health benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion in 2030, including avoiding 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths and 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks in children.”
“Combined with the falling price of clean energy generation, these benefits mean investing in renewable energy projects isn’t just a matter of complying with regulations, it’s in the long-term best interest of Alabama Power’s customers,” said GASP Executive Director Stacie M. Propst, PhD. “The move is, simply, good business.”
Barriers Remain for Homeowners
In 2013, the Alabama Public Service Commission approved a $5 per kilowatt per month surcharge for customers who connect their own energy generation — such as rooftop solar panels — to Alabama Power’s electric grid. This would mean that for a 4 kilowatt system, a customer would pay $20 per month just to generate their own clean energy. That’s in addition to a $5 per month contract fee.
“This announcement from Alabama Power is long overdue and welcome news. But the fact remains that, while there are legitimate costs to maintaining the electric grid, the PSC has put up barriers that keep customers from gaining energy independence,” Propst said.
“Alabama is playing catch up with the rest of the country — including our Southern peers. Lawmakers and regulators need to be looking for ways to encourage growth in the solar energy sector, not ways to block progress.”
While this is a positive development, the PSC, notoriously hostile to clean energy, still has to give Alabama Power the green light. In the meantime, we’ll continue to promote the myriad of benefits of solar and wind energy in Alabama. You can support our efforts by becoming a member today.
Michael joined GASP in 2013 as communications specialist. He has lived in Birmingham since 2008, and is an active member of the Birmingham community. He’s a passionate advocate for health equity, civil rights and equality. He is currently serving as executive director. Email Michael