ATLANTA -- While the state Legislature debates a bill that could cover thousands of roofs with solar panels, some midstate residents are thinking of covering thousands of acres.
“Two years ago, in March 2013, I started to get the first calls on solar,” said Lesley McNary, director of both Taylor County’s Chamber of Commerce and its development authority.
Now, five huge solar projects are lined up for construction in Taylor County this year for customers, including the Southern Co. And McNary is courting more.
The five projects could produce 382 megawatts of power from cells that will cover some 3,500 acres.
Installation will create about 2,000 temporary jobs, “but good temp jobs,” McNary said.
That gives the county, population roughly 8,500, good problems to have. “We’re worried about things now like, ‘How do we feed these people?’” in a county with few restaurants, she said.
Solar projects get a partial tax abatement in Taylor County, but McNary estimates some $38 million to $40 million will flow back into county coffers via taxes and other payments over time.
Separately, a bill from Dublin Republican state Rep. Matt Hatchett would make it a little more financially attractive to install solar farms among tree farms and regular farms.
Some 4 million acres of land across 131 Georgia counties get a property tax break because they are used for commercial or subsistence timber production, according to the state’s latest audit of the Forest Land Protection Act.
Another widespread tax break comes from a Conservation Use Valuation Assessment, which requires that land be kept relatively undeveloped except for farming.
But some landowners are thinking twice and considering turning toward the sun.
Yet they pay enough fees when they break one of these yearslong covenants that it is halting at least a handful of solar farm deals, said Jason Rooks, government affairs director for the Georgia Solar Energy Industries Association.
He supports Hatchett’s House Bill 496, which lets landowners carve out some of their protected land for a solar farm without jeopardizing the covenant and tax break on the rest.
There’s a similar setup for cell towers on conservation land, Rooks noted. The landowner loses the tax break for the land under the solar panels, but not the rest of the protected property.
Solar “has become a pretty good economic development tool for rural Georgia,” he said.
Georgia is not among the states that require a certain amount of electricity to be generated from renewable sources.
Indeed, the state’s utilities have resisted tapping the sun unless and until it is cheaper than coal and gas.
That’s now happening at some times and places in Georgia, with the price of solar cells declining and their efficiency increasing.
But the utilities also say that inefficient batteries for renewables cannot replace heavyweight coal and gas plants.
The House unanimously passed Hatchett’s House Bill 496. It now awaits a Senate committee hearing.