Southern Furthers Move Into Solar With Georgia Rooftop Sales

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Southern Co., one of the biggest burners of fossil fuels among utilities, will start selling rooftop panels to homes in Georgia after buying five solar farms in the state.

Southern’s Georgia Power utility will start offering rooftop solar systems to homes on July 1, Chief Executive Officer Tom Fanning said Tuesday in an interview during the Edison Electric Institute conference in New Orleans. The utility could potentially also offer batteries to residents in the long term as it seeks to sell and own home energy management technologies, he said.

Southern is betting on solar amid a surge in U.S. rooftop installations that have climbed more than 50 percent annually in the past three years as costs decline. The advent of the technology has sapped sales for many utilities, prompting some to call for solar users to pay fees to access the grid.

Many utilities worry the boom will be disruptive, Fanning said. “I don’t believe that at all. I think it is a natural evolution of generation.”

A new Georgia law that allows residents to sign leases with third-party solar providers and sell power back to the grid is opening up the state’s electricity market. Fanning said he wants to be a part of that business.

The move into rooftops is a further step by Southern “to make sure that potential growth opportunities don’t pass them by,” said Kit Konolige, a utility analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. “It’s clearly a vote by a major conservative utility that solar and distributed generation are likely to be around for the long haul.”

Separate Unit

The company’s plans aren’t finalized yet for its solar offering. While the new law doesn’t prevent it from owning solar panels and earning a profit from them, the company plans to sell and install the systems through a separate unit that’s not regulated like a utility, Tim Leljedal, a Southern spokesman, said.

Southern, the fourth-largest U.S. utility owner by market value, bought two solar power plants in Georgia from developer Tradewind Energy Inc. in February, and this month the company said it purchased the Pawpaw Solar Facility in the state from Longview Solar LLC.

Southern has announced or completed about 1,850 megawatts of solar power capacity in the country, Leljedal said.