More Solar Coming to Georgia: Are you Ready?

On July 11th, the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) voted to approve Georgia Power’s 2013 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), a roadmap the company is required to provide every three years to demonstrate how it plans to meet the state’s electric demand. One stipulation of this approval is that Georgia Power add 525 megawatts (MW) of solar to its electric generation portfolio by 2016. This new capacity, combined with the 210 MW the company expects to add through its ongoing Advanced Solar Initiative (ASI), represents a total increase in Georgia’s cumulative installed solar capacity of 735 MW in just over three years. Comparing this figure to the current state of the U.S. solar industry reveals the significance of this growth. This 735 MW, for example, is just slightly more than the amount of solar installed in the entire nation in the first quarter of 2013. If all this new capacity were added tomorrow, Georgia would skyrocket to the number four spot on the list of states with the largest cumulative solar capacity – beating out strong solar states like Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

The new capacity authorized this month will be brought online in two tranches: 260 MW in 2015 and the remaining 265 MW by the end of the following year. Much like the current ASI, this new capacity will also be divided by market segment, with 100 MW earmarked for distributed generation (DG) and 425 MW of utility-scale solar. The ASI expects to add 90 MW of DG and 120 MW of utility-scale solar through 2014. With development of both types booming across the state over the next few years, Georgia counties and municipalities should take steps now to ensure they do not miss out on these projects and the economic benefits they bring. These jurisdictions can help reduce process complexity, lower the overall cost of solar, and send a signal to solar installers that their communities are “open for business” by updating and streamlining local permitting, planning, and zoning policies that govern solar development.

Permitting and inspection can add significant cost to the installation of a solar energy system. In a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, the entire local permitting process (including permit preparation and submittal, system inspection, and permitting fees) adds on average $0.19 per watt (W) of installed capacity for a residential solar energy system. With the national average cost for residential systems currently at $4.93/W, these processes stand to add significantly to the cost of solar. For commercial systems, these costs can be as great as $0.35/W, or nearly 10% of the total cost of these systems.

Complexities arising from the permitting process can also add time to the installation of these systems, and, in some cases, dissuade installers from doing business in these jurisdictions. Clean Power Finance has found that over 1 in 3 solar installers avoid an average of 3.5 jurisdictions due to their permitting processes. Some of this complexity stems from the number of agencies with permitting authority – between 2 and 5 in the jurisdictions studied, each with the potential to have their own unique rules and requirements. Things get even more confusing when installers try to obtain permits for a system placed in an area where solar permitting requirements have yet to be set – a situation they encounter over 10% of the time.

Local governments can help overcome these barriers by adopting a number of solar permitting best practices – including the use of a standard permit, developing an expedited approval process, online processing and guidance materials, capping permit fees, as well as others. In addition, jurisdictions can help overcome informational barriers by publishing information on their permitting processes and requirements in a centralized location, such as the National Solar Permitting Database.

Zoning laws, along with other planning issues, can also determine how easily and cost-effectively solar energy systems of all types are installed. For DG systems, such as those installed on residential and commercial rooftops or grounds, solar should be included in the local zoning code and permitted as an accessory use. As with other property improvements, local governments typically establish criteria – including setback, lot coverage, and district height requirements – governing how development occurs. In the absence of such “as-of-right” zoning, property owners interested in solar will typically require a zoning variance, which not only adds to installation times (as this is a specialized approval and often difficult to obtain) but also to costs, since use variances commonly require application fees. Recognizing this, some states, such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, have developed model small-scale solar ordinances their local governments can use to easily develop their own standards. In addition, the American Planning Association’s (APA) Planning and Zoning for Solar Energy Essential Info Packet provides references for several solar ordinances currently in use in local jurisdictions around the country. Large-scale solar energy systems can also benefit from inclusion in local zoning codes. For examples of these ordinances, see the Massachusetts model ordinance and the APA packet. At least one local government in Georgia has included both types of systems in its local zoning code.

Though the program for the 525 MW of new solar has yet to be developed, it is all but certain that many Georgia local governments will soon see an influx of solar projects. In order to ensure the job creation and economic benefits of this new development don’t pass them by, jurisdictions should act now to remove local barriers to solar. Check out our Resources page to learn about other strategies for bringing more solar to your community, or submit a request for complimentary Technical Assistance if you would like hands-on help with a specific solar-related issue facing your community.