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Solar panels ‘far as the eye can see’ coming to rural Georgia

By Bob Gibson

When Jimmy Autry wants to take reporters on a show-and-tell visit to talk about his utility’s plans for solar power, his best option today is to drive them over to the headquarters of the Clean Control Corporation in Warner Robins, Ga., about 10 miles south of Macon.

Autry is senior vice-president of member and community relations at Flint Energies, an electric cooperative serving several counties in rural central Georgia. In 2012, Flint helped site and interconnect a 150-kilowatt (kW) solar project at Clean Control, a cleaning products company that is one of its commercial customers.

Autry points to several rows of ground-mounted solar panels behind a security fence. “Now,” he says, spreading his arms wide, “imagine something 1,000 times that size.”

Georgia Flint Energies Clean Control Corp 150 K W (1)
Clean Control Corporation’s 150-kw solar project in Warner Robins, Ga. (Photo courtesy of Flint Energies)

Solar is growing in all corners of the U.S., but what is happening in rural Georgia provides a compelling example of the transformative nature of the solar market. Twenty-five miles west of Warner Robins, on a flat, open stretch of land along Highway 96, ground will soon be broken for a 131-megawatt (MW) solar project. Almost 1.5 square miles of what were once cotton fields will be carpeted in matte black First Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, turning to track the sun.

Flint and two other Georgia co-ops — the Cobb Electric Membership Corporation and Sawnee Electric Membership Corporation, both serving outlying areas north of Atlanta — will purchase the entire output of the solar project through a contract with Southern Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company.

Announced on Dec. 17, the 131-MW deal will more than double the aggregate amount of solar that electric co-ops across the country have procured to date. Figures from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)  show that the group’s membership — more than 900 electric co-ops operating in 47 states —  currently own or buy 101 MW of solar nationwide.

Check out NRECA’s website on solar projects at co-ops across the country.

Co-op activity has been accelerating but growth has been confined largely to the construction of community solar projects averaging about 50 kW in size. Suddenly, in Georgia, the solar landscape has changed.

“I didn’t see this coming. No one did,” says Autry.

Flint Energies has a longstanding interest in diversifying its energy resource mix, and it’s been willing to invest in new technologies that hold promise to improve service to its members. Fifteen years ago, it was a pioneer in a short-lived experiment in residential fuel cells. It also has been a strong supporter over the past decade of Green Power EMC, a cooperative of cooperatives, which over the past decade has engineered a grassroots growth of renewable energy in rural Georgia.

The 150-kW solar project at Clean Control is a Green Power EMC initiative, as is an ongoing solar-on-schools initiative, with Flint and other Georgia co-ops installing 1.5-kw arrays on local school rooftops.

Flint was open to the idea of adding solar to its baseload mix, but until recently, the economics were a far stretch. Utilities and the traditional energy industries in the Southeast have long been skeptical about the viability of solar. The region is rich in low-cost baseload power from conventional sources such as coal, gas and nuclear, and generally free of state mandates compelling utilities to invest in renewable energy.

The standard line, regularly repeated at industry meetings, has been that the Southeast is “too cloudy” for solar to ever become an affordable power source.

Check out another article by Bob Gibson on co-ops’ adoption of solar energy.

Two years ago, an unexpected alliance between Georgia environmental and Tea Party activists caught the attention of the state’s public service commission. Solar prices were falling but state rules limited what some advocates on both sides thought could be a more competitive market for solar. Utilities began facing pressure to re-think their strategies.

Georgia Power made the first breakthrough with its Advanced Solar Initiative. Announced at the end of 2012, the program is working toward a goal of developing close to 900 MW of solar, from distributed generation to utility-scale projects.

“Over the past few years we’ve had lots of vendors come to us but the prices were just not attractive,” says Autry. “Then they started coming down –17 cents, 12 cents, 8 cents … Southern Power brought us a price that worked. It was all about the economics.”

With an annual peak demand of 515 MW, Flint’s 15-MW share of the cooperative project will meet a modest share of the power demand from the co-op’s 86,000 accounts.

Community reaction to the new solar project has been strong — and all positive.

“It’s amazing. The biggest question we get, over and over, is ‘How can I hire on?’ ‘How can I help build it?’, “ says Autry. “Anything about economic development is important in a community like ours.”

Autry knows that solar growth won’t end with one project, even one that boasts “tracking panels as far as the eye can see,” he says. Developers are scoping out other large parcels in the region for potential solar farms.

And growth won’t stop at utility-scale solar. The co-op has all of 13 members with rooftop solar PV systems, “but even that is changing, “ says Autry. “We’ve got three new ones in the process of being built. Rooftop solar economics aren’t as attractive as the utility scale – but it’s improving too.”

They could improve a lot more under a new bill introduced Wednesday in the state Legislature that for the first time would allow third-party financing for rooftop solar in the state, removing yet another barrier to residential rooftop — high upfront costs.

The result of a compromise worked out between the solar industry and utilities, the bill is expected to pass and trigger even more solar growth in the state.

Bob Gibson is the Solar Electric Power Association’s Vice President of Educaton and Outreach. He can be reached at [email protected].