Podcast 076: Tim Echols: How does this Georgia Public Service Commissioner see net metering and its future?

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Listen in as host Bill Nussey catches up with two term Georgia Public Service Commissioner, Tim Echols, for a very timely discussion.  Echols breaks down the important role played by the public service commission. He shares his part in promoting net metering in Georgia, and the valuable lessons learned from other states wrestling with this important market mechanism in the transition to local renewable energy. 

Here are some of the highlights from their discussion…

“…net metering is so important when it comes to providing motivation and value for people to do rooftop solar.”


“…the lessons that we learned from looking at Arizona, Nevada, California, and some states that were doing some clawbacks [of existing net metering programs], gave us some rationale to start with small pilots. My fear was, look, if we go all in on this and then we claw it back, we’re only gonna make people mad…”


“… being able to articulate why rooftop solar benefits everyone; how it improves grid efficiency, how distributed energy is a benefit, not just to the homeowner, but to everyone out there.”


You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

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Useful Information

Tim Echols Public Utility Commissioner Site

Tim Echols Energy Matters Podcast

Nationwide TeenPact Leadership Program Founded By Tim Echols

The Freeing Energy perspective on Net Metering: history, context, and digestible explanations for this growing battle between utilities and homeowners.

SEIA Article on Net Metering (Solar Energy Industry Association)

Energy Sage article on Net Metering

Overview article summarizing Net metering challenges nationwide

Department of Energy Grid Connected Energy Systems Article

Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Welcome, welcome, welcome everybody in the Freeing Energy world. This is my first live interview for 2022 and we’ve got a real exciting guest, someone whose position and insights is going to really open a lot of eyes. Everywhere across the United States, people are talking about local energy. And when we set this interview up and we wanted to talk about net metering with today’s guest, I didn’t anticipate just how hot this topic would be. So this is a very timely discussion. And our guest today is not just a person who talks about it, not just a person who is knowledgeable of it, but one of the very few people in the United States that are actually in a position to make decisions on it. There’s a chapter in my book called Meet the 201 People that Control 72% of the U.S. Electricity, and my guest is one of those 201 people. So I’m excited today to welcome Georgia Public Service Commissioner, Tim Echols.

Tim Echols:

Thanks for including me and I’m glad to be part of the 201.

Bill Nussey:

Yes, it’s a really an esteemed position and very important, much more than a lot of people know. So hopefully we go through this conversation today, Tim, we can really open some eyes about just how important the role that you and your colleagues across the country have, how important it’s to communicate and in the case of Georgia, to vote. So I want to tell a little bit about your background though, because you’ve got an absolutely fascinating story and we’re going talk a little bit about it today. But just as a brief introduction, you are a proud graduate of the University of Georgia with three degrees.

Bill Nussey:

Tim is also the long running host of Energy Matters, which is a podcast and a radio show that talks about many of the same issues that we do. He’s also particularly proud of a nonprofit social impact group he created called TeenPact, which is really cool as I have learned more about it. It basically helps high school kids get introduced to government. It takes them into state general assemblies in all 50 states and their meetings and education is actually held at the state capitals during the legislative sessions. So this is a tremendous way for young people to learn about how government really works.

Bill Nussey:

And today, the main thing we’re going to talk to Tim about is his role as a public service commissioner here in the State of Georgia. He was first elected into that position in 2010 and is now in his second year term and is seeking a third term in November of 2022. And Georgia is one of the only of 11 states in the U.S. where the public commissioners are elected. So, Tim, again, really excited to have you here today. And we’ve got a lot to talk about, so thank you for making some time for us.

Tim Echols:

Yeah. It’s an important set of topics we’re going to talk about today and the more folks learn about it, the more they apply some of these principles, the more savvy they’ll be when it comes to energy and ultimately they’ll live more sustainably and save money in the process.

Bill Nussey:

Awesome. I should have added in the introduction that there’s probably no more vocal advocate for electric vehicles in the State of Georgia and few people have done as much to make electric vehicles a big thing in Georgia as Tim. So Tim has really been a big impact… has had a very big impact on the state and it’s a clean energy future. But let’s talk a little bit about your personal life. So we read something interesting about you. We just have to know more about it. There was a time early in your life when you were the only grandson and apparently your grandmother decided you needed to learn how to sew, including the value of the adage, a stitch in time is worth nine. So do you sew and how does that affect your life?

Tim Echols:

I don’t so anymore, but she did teach me to crochet and I guess that’s the hazard of being the first grandchild. She later had granddaughters who did spend more to time crocheting, but once my granddad gave me a pony and then a minibike, it was goodbye to the crocheting.

Bill Nussey:

I loved the minibike, that was my dream growing up. And that’s fantastic. You had a really powerful experience as a teen in high school that we read about, you were introduced to the motivational leader, Zig Ziegler and his leadership content. And apparently that had a big impact on your life. Tell us about that experience and how it shaped your thinking today.

Tim Echols:

And part of it’s because of the guy who actually gave me those tapes, it was Truett Cathy the founder of Chick-fil-A and gave me those tapes when I was seven years old after a rotary club where I received a student of the year award from my high school there in South Atlanta at North Clayton High School. And because I respected Truett Cathy, I did put that cassette tape into that tape recorder that he gave me. I was driving a 1967 Chevrolet C 10 pickup that just had an eight track tape player. So I had to go to considerable trouble to actually listen to the content on these tapes, including buying D batteries or C batteries or whatever it was for that radio shack tape recorder that he gave me but I became addicted to Zig Ziegler and some of his philosophies including that you can get everything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want. And that kind of became my leadership style.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a tremendous story. And for some of our listeners who might be earlier in their lives, you’ll just have to go Google what a cassette tape and an eight track is. So another fun thing we read about was you visiting a fire station on the day of your wedding, what’s that story?

Tim Echols:

Well, I guess when you play tricks on your roommates that it eventually come back to bite you. We had stolen a car from one roommate at his wedding and played some tricks on others. And so when I got married, my roommates sought revenge and they showed up with a ball and chain, tossed me to down at the reception before I even had a chance to put a Chick-fil-A nugget in my mouth, and then strap that thing on with a master lock and refused to take it off. And so I drive away from Roswell United Methodist Church in a Mustang GT with a clutch with that ball and chain moving back and forth under the break and clutch and make my way to the Roswell Fire Station. And fortunately, firemen worked 24 hours a day, even Saturday evening and they were only more than happy to get the jaws of life and free me from that miserable ball and chain.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a great story. Well, very colorful upbringing there. So let’s change gears to what will be our main topic today, which is the energy business and specifically the role that the public service commissions play in that. When did you decide that you wanted to get into this line of work? What was the path that led you to becoming a public servant focused on energy and other areas that service commission focuses on?

Tim Echols:

Well, it goes back to those cassette tapes that we talked about because four years after receiving those cassette tapes for Truett Cathy, I was back in his office because he had promised me a store if I went to college and got a degree. And so I was back to collect on that promise and his offer of a store in Texas or Ohio was made. And because I had listened to those Ziegler tapes over and over and over again, I set some pretty substantial goals in my life, including becoming a statewide elected official in Georgia. And so when he offered me the store out of state, despite me needing a job, I said I can’t leave. He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I’m going to run for office one day.”

Tim Echols:

And so, little did I know that many years would go by and it wouldn’t be until I was 49 years old that I was really in a position to run for an office and an open seat came available on the Georgia public service commission, which is a statewide position in Georgia. And I felt like I may not know everything about energy, but I can learn the hard thing is going to be actually attaining the office, winning the election. And we had three primary opponents and then a runoff and then a general with folks from the libertarian and democratic party. And so it was three elections before I actually got the position, but I finally did.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a great story and a great segue. I think a lot of people who listen in have some idea of what public utility commissioner or as we call them in Georgia public service commissioners do, but can you… You’ve been doing it for a while, you worked hard to get in this position. From your perspective, what is the role of the public service commission?

Tim Echols:

It really is protecting the state against monopolies that may or may not take advantage manage of their monopoly status. I mean, it began with railroads in 1879, and then Telegraph, gas, telephone, and electricity. And so, the agency has grown in scope through the years, but still we work in the right of way. We are over the where you don’t want to have 20 different sets of wires. You want to just have one company owning the wires. And so you grant them a monopoly status, but you’ve got to make sure that they don’t use that in a way to bully customers or in some way, take advantage of that and put eight in a bad position and put consumers in a bad position.

Bill Nussey:

And in Georgia, what utilities, in addition to electricity, do you and your colleagues oversee?

Tim Echols:

Well, Atlanta gas light is the pipes company in Georgia along with Liberty Utilities out of Toronto, Canada that owns a couple of gas markets. And then we have a number of small phone companies that came into existence around 1912, 13, 14 when the big phone companies didn’t want to go out in the country in the rural parts of the state. And so we still regulate those small phone companies, most of them receive a subsidy of some sort. We monitor that, we administer that subsidy that they receive from the universal access fund. And then, we also manage all the call before you dig 8-1-1 safety protocol. So if you are out there digging with a backhoe and you tear up someone’s fiber or hit an electricity underground cable or a gas line, then you’re going to hear from us and you’re going to be fined for your negligence.

Bill Nussey:

Pretty interesting. Okay. Now, one thing that’s unique about you and your colleagues here in Georgia is that you guys are elected and only 11 of the states in the U.S. do that. How do public utility or public service commissioners usually get their jobs outside of Georgia?

Tim Echols:

Usually, they’re appointed by the governor. And so you wind up with a lot of really smart people from Harvard or Yale or Stanford, because when the governor can pick whoever she or he wants for the position, you would pick the smartest person, maybe the most qualified person. But when you are in a state where these regulators are elected, then all of that’s out the window because the perspective regulator has to convince the voters in Georgia, that’s a little over 10 million citizens. You’ve got to convince them that you’re the best person for the job. And part of your compact with voters is if they don’t like what you’re doing, then they throw you out of office the next time you’re on the ballot.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a very interesting perspective. And it’s a powerful difference, but I can see huge benefits to both. And as they say about electricity in the United States, it’s 50 grand experiments and that’s another one where I think everyone can learn and watch and learn from the different approaches. So when you go into the office every day and you have meetings and you sit in hearings, who do you think of first and foremost is your customer? You have a lot of different stakeholders, who are the people that you’re thinking about day in and day out the most?

Tim Echols:

I put questions on my website that I ask myself as I’m making votes. And clearly as I think about constituencies and politicians do typically think in terms of constituencies, you think about your general public that’s out there, that has a home or an apartment. You think about companies that are attempting to make widgets or provide services, but really the utility themselves are one of the constituencies because part of our task is to make sure that these companies are doing well financially, that they aren’t going hand to mouth. That they don’t let the phone ring 50 times before they pick it up, that their trucks aren’t breaking down, that utility poles aren’t dry rotting. So there is some value with those utilities having J.D. Power Awards, getting the lowest interest rate, and having a good rating on Wall Street, all of that ultimately impacts the price of electricity or gas or telephone service based on what’s going on out there in your state and in the country as a whole.

Bill Nussey:

That makes a lot of sense. Well, I think a lot of folks, especially those that are in the energy industry are looking at it from the outsider, increasingly aware of the regulatory side of this industry because of what happened in 2021, particularly in Texas. And as I think most of our listeners know we’ve talked about this over the last year, almost now, but Texas had a massive outage and lot of people’s lives were lost. Many, many lives were impacted. And so this has put a spotlight on Texas and its regulatory oversight. So I’m curious, can you give us a view as a regulator, what is it about Texas that’s unique and then what do you think the folks of Texas and other regulators, including yourself, have learned from that experience of, “Gosh, no one wanted an outage that big.” So what were the lessons you took away?

Tim Echols:

Well, it’s human nature to think that you have the best system, right? I mean, you’re driving along, everybody going faster than you is a maniac and everybody going slower than using an idiot. In some ways, we’re very comfortable with we’re we are at. I’m often defending the fact that we still regulate utilities here in Georgia, and that we’re not in a market like PJM, or some other deregulated environment. And people ask me not all the time, but from time to time, “Hey, don’t you think you should deregulate in Georgia electricity just like you have gas.” And my comment is always, “Well, I might be willing to do that if things are broken, but things aren’t broken and I’m not going to upset the status quo when it’s working just fine in order to try a social experiment.”

Tim Echols:

So going to Texas, the Texans, of course, they’re proud of not only their ERCOT and their energy system, they’re proud of everything they do out there. They think their barbecue is the best. They think their football team is the best. So Texas is an island and to itself and they do have so much going for them. They’ve got oil wells, they’ve got a great wind corridor, they’ve got wonderful sun, they’ve got a massive geography. I don’t think they have income tax. There’s a lot of great things happening out there, but one of the hazards to their grid was the fact that there wasn’t a lot of incentive for these energy plant owners to do preventive maintenance. So there was no way for these companies to really recover all of the costs that might be involved in winterizing or doing excessive as I call it goal plated preventive maintenance, like you have in a state like Georgia, where the power company loves to do preventive maintenance.

Tim Echols:

They’ll do as much as we’ll allow them to do because they’re getting paid for that and that wasn’t the case in Texas. So I think they were riding on a much thinner reserve margin than we were. I certainly don’t want to throw stones at Texas because this type of thing could happen to any state if certain circumstances lined up and there was a lot that went wrong in January of that year when Texas lost 4.5 million customers in that outage. So I think they’ve learned a lot, they’ve made some changes, but principally, they’re system is very different than ours and I don’t desire to deregulate at this time in Georgia. And I’m sure Texas really doesn’t want to go back to things the way it was 30 or 40 years ago, either.

Bill Nussey:

Well, for people in the electricity industry that think capital market competition is always the best answer and I certainly was somebody that leans that way and Texas was seen as an icon of going to the extreme of letting competition take its full swing and I think that it was a good example and a powerful reminder to everybody that the role that regulators play sometimes needs to be bigger than free market minded folks would prefer. And I think what’s going to happen is that to the point you said, is that they’re going to get incented to make more investments in the winterization and other reliability dimensions of their grid. I think we’re all learning from it, but it was a powerful, painful lesson.

Tim Echols:

And we sure learned our lessons here in the state of Georgia certainly being the tip of the spear for something like a nuclear reactor technology that hadn’t really been proven, I would never do that again. I would never sign up without a substantial federal back stop to do a tip of the spear, first of a kind project ever again, because it just has too much risk associated with it. And if a company like Westinghouse can be bankrupted by its parent company, then we’re not safe from anyone being bankrupted other than the federal government.

Tim Echols:

So everybody lives and learns and makes mistakes. And I think in the end will be glad that we built these reactors because there will be a carbon price in the future and these reactors will have even more value. And certainly I think the world’s coming around and seeing that energy from nuclear reactors is really the only way to achieve the aggressive climate goals that are out there. But in the process, we all learn something.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a really interesting point of view. I would love to have a debate with you on nuclear actors one day, but we will put that off because what we want to talk about today I think has turned out since you and I decided to have this conversation several months ago, it’s turned out to be quite the topic of the month, which is net metering. And for all of the listeners at Freeing Energy, they that net metering is a critical component of making rooftop solar, small scale solar, local energy as we call it affordable or at least more affordable.

Bill Nussey:

Many years ago when it was first rolled out, it was contentious. There was some big battles within different states and that is happening once again with new stories, new actors. And I think it’s a really important topic and I’m very pleased that Georgia introduced net metering a little while ago and a lot of folks have benefited from it. So let’s roll back just a little bit, Tim, and tell us what is net metering. And then we’ll talk about one of the things really excited to get your input on is how did Georgia go about getting it? But let’s start with the basics 101, what is net metering?

Tim Echols:

Well, we had instantaneous netting going on with solar arrays across the Georgia Power system. There were a couple of EMCs like Cobb EMC, Jackson EMC, and Sawnee EMC that were offering true net metering or monthly netting. And it essentially changed the value proposition for a solar array by about 30%. It reduced the payback by about 30% because you were essentially being paid retail for the solar you were feeding back on the grid instead of wholesale. So instead of getting 3 cent, you were getting 12 cent and you can see that quickly changes the value of what you had invested in.

Tim Echols:

And for the longest time, the utility wasn’t interested in doing monthly netting and in fact they we’re really not interested in doing it when I offered it as an amendment. We just essentially took a big pill for those of you that think back to your childhood where your parents may have bribed you to take some penicillin or something, by putting it in a big scoop of ice cream, that’s essentially what we did. I put monthly netting or net metering into a scoop of ice cream and that ice cream was the capital structure that the utility was seeking for basically their Wall Street interaction and essentially the return on equity, that number that they… We didn’t give them exactly what they wanted, but we got close.

Tim Echols:

And as a result of that, I felt like if we’re going to give them this in order to enhance their position in New York, let’s make sure we get some things back for our customers. And so we put provision to essentially experiment or have a pilot with net metering for up to 5,000 new customers. We already had about 1800 customers that were behind the meter that were essentially getting wholesale for their power. So it wasn’t net metering, but they were essentially selling back every day to the utility. Those customers were grandfathered in plus another 5,000 and it was wildly successful, way more popular than I ever thought it would be. And those 5,000 slots went fairly quick in about 18 months.

Bill Nussey:

Yes, I know a lot of the folks in the industry and I do have solar on my roof and I am the beneficiary of the upgraded grandfather benefit of that policy, which I really appreciate. When you and I sat down and talked about this and contemplated doing this podcast, you told me a fascinating story about how the process of proposing and getting votes for something like net metering, which is a proxy for all the policy that you put in place, but how it actually works. And I found it fascinating because what I typically only read about is the high level stuff, the arm wrestling part, but the process was fascinating me, could you just spend a minute or two talking about how that got proposed and how it worked its way through to ultimately become policy in Georgia?

Tim Echols:

The solar community’s been asking for net metering from the very day that I got to the commission in 2011. So this is something they’ve been wanting. I think maybe they just gave up until 2019 and we were teeing up the rate case for the power company and Thatcher Young and James Marlow came into one of my colleagues offices where I was sitting there talking and basically said, “Hey commissioner, what about revisiting monthly netting?” And the thing that had helped put this back on my radar was that I had helped secure a solar pavilion for the Gullah Geechee descendants on some Sapelo Island, one of the barrier islands in Georgia to provide power for their library. And it didn’t have monthly netting.

Tim Echols:

And when I looked at all the hard work that we did to get this donated and saw what little benefit they were getting, I was so disappointed that, “Hey, we’ve gone to all the work. We raised $35,000 and we got this pavilion built and they’re only getting this little amount for all of that effort?” It was a perfect time for Thatcher and James to say to me, “What about monthly netting again, commissioner?” And that really me the idea to do an amendment in that rate case and to attempt to add it as a part of this overall package that we were going to provide for the power company. And fortunately I got the votes I needed in order to be able to do it and net became a reality.

Bill Nussey:

And how does that work? So, you had an idea that you wanted to turn into policy. You do this every day, so it’s really obvious to you and probably boring, but just tell me how did you turn that idea, that goal? What did you write? What part of the process did it go into? How did that work?

Tim Echols:

I really sought of the opinion of James and Thatcher because you know, one, they were instrumental in getting me to start thinking about it again, but I also wanted to have it right technically. So I ran the wording past them, I ran the wording past our staff and some others and found what I thought was the right language. I then had to go back a month later and essentially reiterate what I had meant and get a commission vote on it again. So we actually had to approve it twice because I was wanting 5,000 new customers. And the power company was basically arguing, well, this is not clear to us whether or not the existing 1800 customers are a part of the 5,000. So I had to go back and clarify with essentially a clarifying motion to make sure that the utility was perfectly clear, that what we wanted was 5,000 new customers or 32 megawatts of new solar.

Speaker 1:

Is net metering important to the future of residential, solar, and local energy? Solar panels on a home offer a way to save money on electric bills from utilities. And net metering is an important component of those savings and in the decision to go solar. After all, if you produce more solar energy than you consume and you send the extra to your utility, you should be compensated, right? It helps justify the expense of installing the solar panels in the first place, at least that is one point of view. Net metering is a billing mechanism, which allows utilities to give consumers credit for what they inject back into the grid. It’s like running a power meter backwards when excess solar energy flows into the grid. According to the solar energy industry’s association, between 20 and 40% of the electricity produced by residential solar panels goes back to the grid.

Speaker 1:

So getting fair compensation via net metering has become an economic cornerstone for the rapid growth of the solar industry, but not everyone sees the value of net metering in these terms. In fact, net metering is under attack across the country as rooftop solar grows beyond its early niche and begins to threaten the profits of electric utilities. Some 38 states across the country have mandated net metering rules. It’s worth noting that net metering rules fall to the states and have not been mandated by the federal government. But is net metering indispensable?

Speaker 1:

In the state of Hawaii, solar power has been running for almost four years without the net metering program that was supported by Hawaiian electric. Since 2015, no new customer is entitled to apply for the net metering mechanism. So what happened to new solar power installations? They more or less came to a halt. So Hawaii’s leaders went back to the drawing board and created new policies that helped incentivize homeowners to add solar and batteries together. Once again, the industry took off. So is net metering necessary for the success of residential solar?

Speaker 1:

In chapter seven of his recently published book, Freeing Energy author, Bill Nussey suggests that technologies like solar plus batteries expand consumer options and may one day leave net metering less crucial than it is today. Net metering is one of the most contentious, complex, and important topics in local energy today. If you want to learn more about net metering and it’s rolling your local energy future, we’ve included several very useful links in the show notes for this episode. Now by act to Bill and Tim to hear even more.

Bill Nussey:

The fact that net metering got on your agenda was because a couple of folks that in the community happened to be in your office having a discussion. But in my book, I tell the story about my first trip to go visit you and others in the public service commission offices. And it was actually James Marlow who took me on that visit. I remember he said, “Why don’t you go meet the public service commissioners?” And I said, “Can you do that?” It was really truly. Tim, you live in this world so I probably sound like a looney-noob to you, but I was like, “You can just go talk to them?” And he goes, “You elected them. You can absolutely go talk to them. “And so we went in the office and met you and Bubba McDonald and several other commissioners.

Bill Nussey:

It was amazing to me as a person who hasn’t typically intersected with government and frankly, having come from the tech space, the adage is to stay as far away from anything related to the government as you can, that I found everybody, I talked to didn’t necessarily agree with everything that everyone wanted, but very open to having conversations, very approachable. And it really changed my view of government. And you guys, your colleagues really opened my eyes to role that we as citizens have, and particularly people with my background, it’s a muscle they haven’t exercised and one that they can.

Bill Nussey:

And so if you don’t know much about your public utility commissions, all their stuff’s online, go read about it, give them a call, send them an email, go visit them if there’s open as our commissioners are to taking visits. So that’s a really big deal. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that you guys not only will have meetings and talk to concerned citizens, but in the case of the story of net metering, happenstance meeting was one of the reasons that you decided to push for net metering in the state, which I’m thankful for. I think everyone needs to understand that the government isn’t this intractable thing, at least not in every case.

Tim Echols:

Yes, there’s a lot of cynicism out there. And certainly being an elected commissioner gives you more motivation, I think, to meet with people and be very generous with your time where if you’re appointed by a governor, you really only have one constituent and that’s the governor.

Bill Nussey:

Good point.

Tim Echols:

And so you’re in your office and when the governor calls you, you need to answer the phone, but the governor doesn’t call my office and ask for things. So I love the fact that we are accountable to the people and that I have a chance to engage and interact and educate through my clean energy roadshow and a lot of the other activities. Let me say this on net metering, that the lessons that we learned that, I learned from looking at Arizona, Nevada, California, and some states that were doing some clawbacks of some of the numbers, I think gave us some rationale to do a pilot to start small because we could always add to it. But my fear was, look, if we go all in on this and this is unlimited and then we claw it back, we’re only going to make people mad. So let’s do something that’s permanent, but give ourselves room to grow the program.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a perfect segue to our last big discussion point today, which is the future of net metering. And the timing of this podcast will probably come out after some of this has been resolved, but the State of California who has really been the most aggressive progressive in terms of net metering is really proposing what I see as an about-face and going back to a more conventional pay wholesale rate type of payment system. And this is reaching the highest levels of discussion the governor [inaudible 00:36:15] the other day of California. And so I think this has put a lot of people unnoticed that net meeting really matters.

Bill Nussey:

Whatever your opinion of it is and I’ve talked to people who are a hundred times smarter on this than I who think that California should go with a plan that’s been proposed and many people think it should be changed and kept more like it has been. So I’m just curious, what do you take away when you look at the debate in California and think about where we can go in Georgia at an academic level, not necessarily any policy prognostications, but what do you take away from those conversations and how does that inform what you think about us in Georgia going forward?

Tim Echols:

Yeah, I’m not surprised to see what California’s done. They used to allow Priuses to be in that HOV lane out there and then they took that privilege away. All these people had bought Priuses, half the Priuses made or sold in America were in California in part to be able to get in those lanes and then the policy changed. I think changing policy causes a lot of unrest out there in the legal and the business community. People like predictability. And it’s very important to me, for us create policies and plans and rules that actually will withstand the test of time. Our integrated resource planning process has never been amended. Created by Democrats in 1991 and never amended. It’s working beautifully.

Tim Echols:

So, I feel like that net metering is so important when it comes to providing motivation and value for people to do rooftop solar. And so, being able to articulate why rooftop solar benefits everyone, how it improves grid efficiency, how distributed energy is a benefit not just to the homeowner, but everyone out there. Those are arguments that are going to have to be made again. And California certainly has had their share of contention out there with utilities. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s a lot of maybe revenge outages. I look at all that’s going on in the Bay Area, the outages that they’re having, and the impact that that has on businesses, on, on food and refrigerators, and everything else and I’m just kind of baffled how a state that has come so far as California has is spiraling out of control in some ways.

Tim Echols:

Again, I don’t want to throw stones at them because they really have been the leader in electric vehicles. Still are. And so many policies have been put into place because of what California did and the example that they have had, but they’re to get a handle on this net metering because people have made these investments for decades. And when consumers feel like they’ve been cheated or in some way, the government has gone back on a promise that was made or utility has gone back, then it doesn’t do but make for a more contentious environment.

Bill Nussey:

I really like that perspective and wasn’t sure how you’d answer it and I think that’s very valuable. I didn’t really think about the notion that part of the value of good policy making is to not do about-faces. I actually know many people that bought Priuses in California to get in those HOV lanes and that was the main reason they bought them and I didn’t realize that they had disallowed that at a later date. So of course, I don’t think anyone buys Priuses anymore, but for the people that had them and held them, that’s a bummer. So great perspective, Tim. Thank you. So I don’t want to put on the spot, but I am, and I’m just curious, what’s Tim Echols view of where… Where would you like to see net metering in Georgia as we go out in the next couple of years?

Tim Echols:

I’m one commissioner of five, so I certainly can’t make any hard and fast promises, but I would love to see us quadruple the number that we had in this next integrated plan. So let’s take it from 5,000 to 20,000 and keep the program going since we’ve got all the mechanisms in place, the systems in place at the power company, let’s keep it going. But I do think it’s going to be a difficult sell. The power companies still not in favor of net metering, and I know they’re going to be pushing back against it. So I’m not overly optimistic that I can get this done, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Bill Nussey:

A lot of our listeners are in Georgia, so this is a great point to make to you and your colleagues and to let… And people need to let the government know that they care about this. So that’s a bit of a call to action for all of us that want to see more net metering in the state. So thanks for that, Tim. So let’s take off your commissioner hat and put on your strategy hat. You’re as knowledgeable about net metering as most people and certainly is involved with it as any, where do you think it’s going to be in 10 or 15 years? Once we get through this stage where we’re still shaking it off and figuring it out, where do you think it’s going to land in the long term?

Tim Echols:

I think there’s a possibility that utilities take the marketplace that many of them are developing. I know Con Ed had very robust marketplace that I turned Georgia Power onto and Georgia Power used to just be selling a lighter to now they’re selling all kinds of things, but I do think there’s a possibility that in 10 years that you can order batteries for your home off those marketplaces, you can order solar systems, off your home, maybe even electric cars from the utility, of course, chargers of course, some of the other things that you can already get. But I do see the utilities going into on bill financing a little bit further and offering a greater variety of products.

Bill Nussey:

Interesting. And to double back, do you think that net metering will exist in 10 years? Does it need to? What’s your perspective on that?

Tim Echols:

I think there are certain EMCs like [COC 00:43:10] and Jackson EMC that have really made it a part of their brand. I think it will stay robust with some of the smaller EMCs that were really doing it on their own voluntarily, because they felt like it was the right thing to do for their members. With Georgia Power and big utilities, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’ll be on the commission in 10 years.

Bill Nussey:

Oh, wow.

Tim Echols:

I love the job, but future commissions may require the utility to do even more net metering. I think that’s a possibility. The commissioner, certainly, can compel the utility to do it. But the utility is trusted, they get J.D. Power Awards, they have the experts that we talked about earlier, and so their opinion, their assessment, their track record matters and it means something and with the commissioners. And I think we always give them their say, I would even say, we always give them the benefit of the doubt. They’re not perfect. They do make mistakes from time to time, but they do a great job at running the Georgia grid and people have come to rely on the reliability of the grid. Businesses move here, it’s a part of the economic development pitch that’s made the reliable power, the 15% below the national average power. All of that means something and carry some cache with commissioners.

Bill Nussey:

That’s I think a great perspective that a lot of people don’t have the benefit of. I’m grateful that you’ve decided to share your time with us today and our listeners and offer that to us. Because I think the more we see the bigger picture, the more diverse opinions, the more I think we can get to conclusions that benefit everybody. And at the risk of sharing my own far less expert opinion, I will tell you that I think the topic of net metering will die down. And this is Bill Nussey’s non-expert but deeply researched opinion. And the reason is the net metering matters a lot if you just have solar, but as the price of solar goes down, it’s about $3 a watt to build it in the U.S., but in Australia it’s only a dollar, a dollar 10 to build it. So there’s a lot of just basic blocking and tackling to lower the price of solar.

Bill Nussey:

And following that, you’ve also got batteries, residential batteries, Powerwalls, and other brands getting more and more affordable. So there’s a turning point, I don’t know if it’s five, 10 years, but I think we’ll see a time in the future where people will be able to use all of the power they generate. And so it doesn’t matter to them how much they send back to the grid or what they get paid for it because they’ll be utilizing all the solar they generate by storing it in their batteries and their cars when they can’t use it immediately.

Tim Echols:

I think you may be right, we’ll see.

Bill Nussey:

Yeah, we’ll see. But I want to make sure that we all are as educated as possible and make decisions eyes wide open as we get towards that future time. Well, Tim, this has been incredibly educational and a lot of fun. The last part of our podcast with all of our esteem guests is what we call the lightning round. And this is just a quick picture into your worldview and we have four quick questions we ask everybody. So without more ado, let me just jump in with the four lightning round questions. What excites you most about being in the clean energy business?

Tim Echols:

I think deploying clean energy in way that makes sense, that’s what really motivates me.

Bill Nussey:

Okay. If you could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, what would it be?

Tim Echols:

It would be to have solar panels work with moon beams.

Bill Nussey:

Yes. All right. What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate and distribute electricity in five years?

Tim Echols:

I think it’s going to be hydrogen, hydrogen’s impact has a near perfect fuel and the impact it’s going to have in the fertilizer and plastic business.

Bill Nussey:

Interesting. All right. And final question. What do you say to folks who are outside the industry and they come to you and ask, what can they do to help? How do you answer that question?

Tim Echols:

You need to live it personally, a sustainable lifestyle. You need to become a savvy energy customer. You need to implement efficiency into your life as much as you can do and can afford.

Bill Nussey:

Well, there you go. Tim, this has been so enlightening. It’s been a ton of fun. I’ve learned a bunch, which I’m grateful for and I really appreciate you taking the time. So thanks again for sharing all these insights with us and helping Georgia get more solar and more net metering and all the things you’re doing. Thanks so much.

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  1. Great interview; thanks to both of you.

    I only recently (1q21) obtained PV, and it was a stretch financially, so it is a small (4kw) system. I knew about wholesale net metering offered by our local co-op. My goals were to 1) reduce my use of coal, 2) signal my co-op that I want to reduce my use of coal, and 3) signal to my neighbors that solar is a good thing. Selling power was NOT one of my goals, and I believe that the wholesale rate will diminish further in the future and that is a good thing. I boast to my neighbors that my little rooftop solar system helps to LOWER our cost of electricity. I have already electrified my house which eliminated my fossil gas usage but increased my electricity usage. I hope to add a battery and/or an electric vehicle to further reduce my coal and gasoline usage.

    The best incentives to me are those that help me pay for the system. I don’t need any compensation after that. I am confident that I have helped to apply a tiny bit more pressure to my co-op to reduce its use of coal.

    I certainly agree that CHANGING the net-metering for existing customers with PV is a bad thing. And adding fixed charges are even worse. What better signal to tell customers that you want them to go off-grid? And, aren’t we lucky that it’s getting easier and easier to do?

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