SOLAR POWER: ROADBLOCKS IN THE SOUTH, PATHWAYS IN THE NORTH
Chris (last name redacted for privacy) is a happily engaged & Southern-raised proud tree hugger, football-loving avid skier and runner, church choir singer and University of Tennessee Volunteer for life.
Edited by Abbey Jasmine Rose.
As southerner born of two farm families, currently living in East Tennessee, you might be surprised that I am in fact passionate about environmental issues and currently working for a solar contractor.
Roughly ten years ago, solar was booming in my state. Solar incentives from the regional electric provider TVA were substantial and there were over a hundred solar contractors, barely keeping up with demand. Today, there are only a handful, and those incentives are almost non-existent. What happened? Did we reach capacity? Is nobody else in the state interested in solar? Disappointingly and unsurprisingly, the answer has to do with greed.
There certainly is still love for coal down here as I frequently see ‘friends of coal’ bumper stickers during my work travel in the Appalachia region. I think this public sentiment is what prohibits politicians from taking action and promoting renewable energy. It’s sad, because that ‘love’ of coal is based on the lie that there are thousands of coal jobs to be lost. Politicians with financial interest in coal use this misinformation to convince constituents that an increase in green energy will mean financial ruin for them. This misinformation has created a negative sentiment towards solar as it is seen as a competitor to coal, rather than a huge possible opportunity for people to continue working in energy production.
Most of the fossil-fuel related environmental damage in my region is from coal, particularly the mountain top removal method. This has lead to disasters such as the Kingston Fossil Plant Spill. Mining waste fills creeks and rivers with extremely toxic heavy metals, polluting the regional water table. Fracking is bad for the Earth and its water, but its impact is still relatively small compared to coal mining.
There is plenty of available land for solar farms across America. Much of the resistance comes from utility companies afraid of distributed power. They are worried that if more and more home and business owners start generating their own power, they won’t have a need for the utility company for electricity.
Today in the south, most of our systems are “behind-the-meter”. That means all of the energy produced by the solar area is consumed on-site. When there were hefty incentives ten years ago, it was financially advantageous for a home or business owner to simply sell all of their energy back to the utility company and receive a premium rate on that energy compared to the one they were paying. This is called a “billing credit agreement”, and is what kickstarted the industry here in the Southeast.
Unfortunately, those premium rates (at one point eight cents over the consumer’s rate, making the payback of any system lightning fast), were cut. The immediate $1000 rebate, gone too. Today, that rate is less than the rate the average consumer is paying. Several homeowners have told me this feels like a ‘slap in the face’ from their utility company. This brought the solar industry in Tennessee to a screeching halt.
“Why would I give them energy for less than they are giving it to me?” This is a common response from home and business owners when I explain how solar “works” in Tennessee. They now save on their electric bill by producing their own energy, in spite of the electric company. This animosity seems to go both ways. In the past year, we’ve seen electric companies in several Southeastern states delay and deny our projects for dubious reasons. They’ll tell us one thing before a project is started, then change the interconnection requirements after it’s installed. These roadblocks are costly – both in time and money. It creates confusion and doubt for the end user.
But how does this relate to issues facing those in Brooklyn? New York State, and the entire Northeastern energy sector is completely different than ours. Not only are their attitudes toward sustainable energy friendlier, but on average the consumers pay higher energy prices and with an overall higher demand. They need alternative energy. Plus y’all talk funny, but so do we.
I’ve seen a lot of Northeast states leading the way in solar adoption and that have much more favorable policies and incentives compared to southern states. The key difference is that the Northeast energy distributors respond to sustainable energy with open arms. They aren’t fighting the inevitable. You could argue this is out of necessity – the challenge of a higher energy demand and not having the capacity for more power plants. Or you could argue they are trying to do the right thing by providing better financial incentives. Either way it’s good for consumers as they’ll receive cheaper and cleaner energy.
A breakthrough in your backyard is one we are using down here. We recently had a project derailed by the cities’ electric company. A business owner wanted to install a system in his parking lot as an expansion – it would allow him to receive those premium rates I mentioned earlier from his original system. The utility company blocked it because his parking lot was not technically on the same parcel as the original system, even though the requirement was we interconnected at the same place, which was the plan. We went back and forth with the utility company for several months, and never received a legal reason why the system was denied.
The only usable space the business owner had was his roof, but it was cluttered with AC units, leaving very little space for solar. In steps Brooklyn Solar Works, which will sponsor and exhibit at Go Green! BK Festival in June. They’ve developed a solution for cluttered roofs that can be applied to any major city in the world. It’s a canopy that stands over ten feet above the roof. It avoids permitting issues and fire code restrictions, since it’s already made it past the bevy of strict laws applicable to NYC. You can see a Brooklyn Solar Works solar canopy in person, powering the Greenstage performances at the festival.
This breakthrough has made a previously unthinkable option for solar viable. This canopy will spread not simply because it’s sleek and useful, but because installers in other places will find creative ways to use it in their territories for their clients. Rooftop gardens or other greenspaces become perfect energy hubs, as the canopy will only provide shade but not take up the usable lounging/sitting space. In my opinion, city-dwellers are more environmentally conscious, dying to make a positive impact on their carbon footprint. This breakthrough is truly opening an entirely new market in cities around the world.
In the toughest area of our country, solar and other renewables are relentlessly progressing, and the challenges they have faced have only made the industry more resilient and innovative. While the Northeast is more open and demanding of sustainable energy, our industry will use breakthroughs in one area to be used in another because we all have the same goal – to improve how the world produces its energy.
Be sure to check out Go Green! BK Festival to meet Brooklyn Solar Works, as well as Venture Solar and Solar One. Enjoy the day and get inspired by beautiful music, fun activities, and eco-friendly initiatives. Let’s greenify our concrete jungle together.
* Reprinted from the Go Green! BK Hub, the 24/7 representation of the annual Go Green! BK Festival.