First big Ga. Power solar project comes online in Upson

A new solar array in Upson County has just begun producing energy for the Georgia Power grid, making it the company’s first large-scale solar investment.

But more are on the way. Two solar development companies are building three more large arrays that will sell Georgia Power 50 megawatts of solar electricity by 2015.

This would nearly quadruple the amount of solar power generated in Georgia. According to the Georgia Solar Energy Association, 18 megawatts of solar power are now being produced in the state.

Even so, 50 megawatts is a drop in the bucket compared to Georgia Power’s investment in conventional -- and dirtier -- power generation. Plant Scherer alone, a Monroe County coal-fired power plant owned mostly by Georgia Power, generates 3,272 megawatts of electricity, said Lynn Wallace, a Georgia Power spokeswoman.

The plan for the solar projects was approved in late 2010 by the Georgia Public Service Commission, which charged the company with incorporating solar into its renewable energy portfolio.

The Upson County project, located on 10 acres between Thomaston and Hannahs Mill, will generate one megawatt of electricity, said Bradley Francis, president of Atlanta-based Solar Design & Development. His company won a contract with Georgia Power to design and install the project, which will generate enough electricity to power about 300 homes.

That electricity will be part of Georgia Power’s Green Energy program, which is made up of electric customers who voluntarily pay a higher rate for electricity created from cleaner sources such as solar.

Partnering with Origis Energy, Solar Design & Development also received a contract to build larger solar arrays on 33 acres in Meriwether County to generate 4 megawatts of electricity, and 150 acres in Mitchell County to generate 15 megawatts. Those will not contribute to the Green Energy program but will be part of Georgia Power’s regular portfolio, Wallace said.

Francis said the location for the Upson project was chosen partly because it is next to a Georgia Power substation and in a residential area with electricity demand. Francis said sites are chosen for flat land, preferably southern facing, near a substation and nearby power users.

The remaining 30 megawatts of solar capacity being developed for Georgia Power will be done by Simon Solar on land in Social Circle, Wallace said. According to Simon Solar’s website, the company was developed by a family to turn its former cotton farm into the largest solar farm in the South.

These three projects represent the first solar power that Georgia Power will buy outside its Green Energy Program. The company signed contracts to buy the electricity generated for a certain number of years. Those contracts kick in starting in 2015, although the company will buy the electricity at a lower rate if it becomes available before then, Wallace said.

Wallace said although renewable energy is part of Georgia Power’s portfolio, it is now all supplied by biomass, mostly various technologies using landfill gas.

For years, Georgia Power argued that solar power wouldn’t work in Georgia. The company buys some solar power -- no more than 100 kilowatts per household -- from upwards of 100 residential customers as part of the Green Energy program. Georgia Power also acts as a wholesaler for a solar project with Dalton Utilities, Wallace said.

While solar isn’t yet as cheap as coal, natural gas and other conventional power sources, it has become more affordable.

“The cost of solar has come down quite dramatically,” Wallace said. “We’re always willing to incorporate more renewable energy if it’s cost-effective.”

She would not say how much Georgia Power will be paying for the power generated by the new solar arrays, but the company’s Green Energy program pays 17 cents a kilowatt-hour for solar (compared to about 5 cents a kilowatt hour for coal).

Wallace said solar started as high as 25 cents a kilowatt hour.

The Meriwether County and Mitchell County projects will break ground soon, according to a Solar Design & Development news release.

The 20 megawatts being developed by the company are expected to cost about $60 million, about a third of which will be supplied by federal grants or tax breaks, Francis said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.