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Making informed solar choices

The ink isn’t dry on legislation making it easier to finance solar systems for Georgia consumers and already unscrupulous marketers are misleading consumers with offers to go solar and “eliminate” the electric bill.

If Georgia’s experience is anything like California, Arizona or even Louisiana, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs will soon be busy with complaints of deceptive marketing. Rest assured, solar consumers will still get an electric bill. And when you consider all capital and finance costs, solar isn’t cheaper than residential and small commercial electric rates offered by Georgia utilities.

Beware of sales gimmicks that predict electric rates will rise 4 to 6 percent annually. Over the last 25 years, the average annual increase has been less than 2 percent. Ask for a good faith estimate of the kilowatt hours to be delivered by the system over time. Request plain language explanations of pricing terms over the life of the contract, warranties and operation and maintenance costs and responsibilities. The lowest-cost option for solar arrays may not even be a lease, but paying cash or using a home equity loan and taking the 30 percent federal tax credit oneself.

Before investing in a solar battery back-up system at $5,000 to $10,000 every 10 years or so, be sure to weigh that cost against practical investments in non-perishable foods and other goods necessary to ride out those rare power outages. If backup power is necessary, a natural gas standby generator is likely more cost effective.

Even if cost calculations suggest you will break even in 15 to 20 years, it may not be a good idea to install solar if you may move before then. Selling a home with a solar array may be a selling point in some parts of California, but here in Georgia it can be a liability that harms resale value.

Some developments may require that solar arrays not be visible from the road. Considering that arrays perform best when facing south, this may limit your options.

Solar customers must be connected to the grid for backup power and to sell excess power back to the system, which means they still need power plants and all the network infrastructure necessary to serve the home 24 hours a day. However, residential solar customers do not pay all these fixed costs.

In California, a 2013 study estimates that rooftop solar has caused a $1.2 billion cost shift onto non-solar customers because solar customers pay about 19 percent less than what it costs the utility to serve them. Georgia should consider restructuring the fixed infrastructure costs into a demand component on residential customer bills so that everyone who uses the grid pays their fair share of the costs.

Before investing a large amount of money in a home solar system, have an energy audit performed on your home to see if you can save energy costs every month. As consumer protections develop, technology improves and prices decline, solar energy shows great promise under the right application.

Stan Wise is a Georgia Public Service Commissioner.

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