Southern Environmental Law Center

Chad Ray founded Sun Raised Farms, a network of family farmers across North Carolina who place and manage sheep on utility-scale solar farms.

Commentary: Series highlights ‘Stories of Solar’ in the Southeast

Katie Ottenweller is a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Katie Ottenweller is a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.

As one of the sunniest places in our country, the Southeast has perhaps the most to gain from the benefits offered by solar power. With good-paying solar industry jobs on the rise in the United States, Southeastern states could reap considerable economic dividends by embracing solar power—but this will only happen if utility companies and local governments enact fair policies that encourage families, businesses, and communities to go solar.

In some states in our region, policy barriers blocking rooftop solar thwart progress toward a clean, renewable energy future, stifling economic growth and job creation. These barriers keep Southern families and businesses from saving money and tapping into abundant clean energy. And they’re causing our communities to miss out on a significant economic opportunity.

What’s often forgotten in the policy battles waged over solar are the families and businesses impacted—the real Southerners making solar work despite the obstacles. They know first-hand what solar power means for their homes, businesses, farms, churches, and communities. This is why the Southern Environmental Law Center recently launched Stories of Solar, a video series that tells the stories of those in the Southeast who are using and supporting solar power.

In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for example, Alabama native Chuck Jay retired from a long career as a coal miner and decided to open a small business installing solar panels. But his business is being held back by a punitive “rate rider” fee imposed by their electric utility, Alabama Power, which cuts his customers’ expected solar savings in half. As the film featuring Chuck Jay shows, Alabama is losing jobs and economic development to other states as a result of these anti-solar policies. It is one of the lowest-ranked states for solar, despite its potential to generate enough solar to power hundreds of thousands of homes and spur many jobs.

Other states in the Southeast like South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia have made some strides on solar, but they too have more solar potential to unlock.

For example, if policymakers commit to supporting fair treatment for solar-generating customers and expanding access to renters and low-income communities, Georgia could be producing enough solar to power 1.2 million homes by 2030. Many Georgians are already making the switch to solar power. In Decatur, Rev. Daniel Dice rents his church’s roof space to a solar company, which generates much-needed funds for important church programs like its food pantry and Toys for Tots in his community. Family farmers like Will Harris in Bluffton are also using solar energy to help power their farms, while folks like Greg Brooks of Walton EMC and Nathaniel Smith of the Partnership for Southern Equity are working to ensure that every family and business, including those in low-income communities, have access to local, affordable renewable energy.

And in North Carolina, one of the leading states in clean energy policy, short-sighted policy roll backs threaten to undermine solar advances. In Raleigh, Southern Energy Management co-founder Maria Kingery has already seen a decrease in solar installations since a state tax credit for installing solar expired in 2015. Despite these obstacles, family farmers like Chad Ray and Renee Westmoreland are using solar in innovative ways, pairing family farmers with solar farms across the state.

From a former coal miner turned solar installer in Alabama to a family farmer in North Carolina to a pastor in Georgia, everyone has their own, unique reasons for going solar. But the barriers to increased growth for the solar industry in our states are common, and they mean that millions of families, farms, businesses, and communities still don’t have access to this valuable local resource. If we’re serious about long-term economic growth, job creation, and sustainability in our region, that has to change.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is working with partners across diverse communities and industries who have come together to call for policy changes in the Southeast that unlock our solar potential. Momentum is growing to break down these barriers for our states and renew our investment in clean energy. Together, Southerners are letting our elected leaders know that we’re serious about solar. Because it’s time to take full advantage of that bright Southern sunshine.

Watch the Stories of Solar at www.stories.solar.

Katie C. Ottenweller is the Southern Environmental Law Centers Staff Attorney and leads the organizations Solar Initiative.

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