The state Public Service Commission held firm Tuesday on a 5,000-customer cap on Georgia Power’s rooftop solar program.

Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett said that the Georgia Public Service Commission is best equipped to regulate the solar energy industry in order to protect home and business owners from shoddy companies.

Credit: Courtesy of Capitol Beat

The Georgia House could cast a vote on as early as this week on a bill that would give the Public Service Commission the sweeping power to regulate solar panel installers and set guidelines designed to weed out companies that saddle customers with overpriced equipment and make false claims about how much the solar panels will reduce their energy bills.

The House Committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications last week unanimously approved House Bill 73 after holding several committee meetings on the proposal to have the state utilities regulators determine which companies are allowed to finance and install solar panels and the ability to pull licenses and fine companies who run afoul of the rules.

There are some criticisms of the bill, though, including it handing over the reins of regulation to a PSC that some clean energy groups criticize deem as not having been supportive enough of solar energy development.

Dallas Republican Rep. Joseph Gullett’s bill would allow the five-member commission to issue “certificates of authority” to solar companies before the start of 2024. 

As part of the application process, businesses will have to provide financial disclosures, conduct background checks on employees and contractors who will be going out to homes and businesses and ensure that information about the companies is easily accessible to the public.

Each company would also have to provide to prospective buyers with a detailed outline of the costs of the panels and labor to put up the equipment, the panel’s expected lifetime, the terms of the loan contract and how much employing solar panels could help drive down the cost of electric bills.

The PSC and solar industry would also create a public educational video for prospective buyers.

“What we’re not trying to do is shut down solar installations in Georgia,” Gullett said at a committee meeting. “That’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make sure that the bad actors are cut out of the market and that the good actors have a great field day and make a lot of money out there.”

And as the solar industry has grown in recent years, so have the number of complaints made to the utility regulator by Georgians about finance companies approving high-priced loans and solar power companies making false promises of zero-cost power bills and friendly tax credits.

In some cases, rooftop solar companies will pay a customer’s electric bills for a couple of years, with the homeowner believing they are getting free electricity, before the bills unexpectedly start showing up again. Gullett referenced a woman from his district who doesn’t speak English who was duped into signing a contract to buy the largest rooftop panels that could fit on her trailer home.

The solar industry associations and environmentalists have long supported industry regulation in Georgia, but there is disagreement about which agency should be in charge.

Last year, organizations like the Georgia Solar Energy Association, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Sierra Club of Georgia criticized the PSC’s approval of a $1.8 billion Georgia Power rate plan that it claimed was equivalent to taking a sledgehammer to a popular pilot program that allowed 5,000 Georgia homes and businesses to install solar panels on their roofs.  In that case, Georgia Power was able to slash the payments to those solar panel owners who resell electricity to the grid as the company argued that those customers aren’t paying their fair share of distribution costs compared,

Mark Woodall, conservation chair of Sierra Club Georgia. said there are problems with out-of-state scammers ripping people off, but the attorney general’s consumer protection division should investigate and take action against those who violate the law.

Enforcement should be handled by another entity that has the best interests of consumers and the solar industry, he said.

“Georgia is one of the worst states in the United States for rooftop solar. That’s because of Georgia Power and the PSC,” Woodall said.

Reece McAlister, the PSC’s executive director, told members of the House energy committee earlier this month that the commission feels confident about regulating a new industry that will include some responsibilities similar to what is done now with utilities. In addition to Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light, the PSC has limited oversight over 41 electric membership corporations and 52 municipally owned electric systems.

Commissioners would have 60 days to approve applications under the new solar industry regulations.

McAlister said that the PSC staff will work with the solar industry to draft the rules and regulations so that legislators can review them in enough time for companies to have licenses before Jan. 1.

“We don’t want to be an impediment to people getting their work done. So the people who want to stay in business and be ready January 1, we want to have these out early so that we can start the application process, get the reviews done, have those people certificated and ready to hit the ground running on the first of January. 

Marietta GOP Rep. Don Parsons, chairman of the House energy committee, said he understands that some in the industry aren’t thrilled about the PSC regulating solar companies, but it’s an agency that has experience working with utilities and that many people already reach out to the PSC with their complaints about companies.

“It’s the opinion of the chair that the PSC is the proper place for this to go to because it is related to the generation of electricity,” he said at a committee meeting. “It’s related to the selling of electricity.”

Rep. Robert Dickey, a Musella Republican, said the application process needs to be easy for new businesses to enter the market.

“I do have sympathy about the barriers to entry, people have to be able to get into business,” said the House energy and utility committee member. “At the same time, there (are) egregious activities going on so it’s got to be balanced in a way that small businesses are able to grow, start and, also protect consumers at the same time.”

For more information on solar power for your home, check out these resources:

Information about solar energy can be found on the Georgia Public Service Commission’s website. Georgia Power offers a solar advisor tool and information on scams is available on the Georgia Solar Energy Commission website.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.