Solar set to make big inroads across Middle Georgia
Georgia was one of the hottest states for solar installation in 2013, coming in at No. 7 among states with installed solar arrays topping 91 megawatts of generating capacity.
Though the numbers didn’t push the state into the top 10 for installed solar capacity overall, they are just the beginning of a major surge in solar construction for the state, and Middle Georgia in particular.
In Middle Georgia, Georgia Power will add 34 megawatts via three large projects following an approval by the Georgia Public Service Commission in December. In addition, through it’s the small- and medium-sized program of its Advanced Solar Initiative, Georgia Power selected another slate of projects in June that will add an additional 7.2 megawatts at smaller sites.
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The three sites are a 10-megawatt installation at Robins Air Force Base, announced last week, a 4-megawatt site in Dublin and a proposed 20-megawatt site in Twiggs County, which is still under consideration for approval by county commissioners.
The Advanced Solar Initiative, along with other Georgia Power solar efforts, will bring online more than 865 megawatts by the end of 2016, a sea change from just 2012, when Georgia Power began a major new investment in solar, said Charlie Coggeshall, who tracks solar initiatives for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“That is a ton of investment in solar,” Coggeshall said. “Especially when you consider that in 2012 Georgia Power had less than 100 megawatts of solar capacity.”
Georgia Power has a total of 3.8 megawatts of solar generation from 31 projects in its Central Region, a 28-county area in eastern Middle Georgia, including Bibb, Jones, Monroe and Twiggs counties. With its new contracts, there will 41.2 megawatts added in the region by 2015, said John Kraft, a spokesman for Georgia Power.
Among the smaller sites is a 1 megawatt facility in Juliette approved by county commissioners in June. The sites are all owned by individuals or investors, who sell the power to Georgia Power based on a long-term contract.
Statewide, there were more than 1,200 proposals for small and mid-sized projects among the Advanced Solar Initiative proposals for the slots announced in 2014 by Georgia Power. Of those, Hannah Solar had 333 proposals, said Greg Kelly vice president of sales and service at Hannah.
Hannah is the largest installation company in Georgia and won enough lottery spots to build 20 megawatts at sites throughout the state. Among the projects Hannah is working on are several in Middle Georgia, including a 1 megawatt facility in Macon County, two sites in Dublin, a 1 megawatt facility in Chester, and three smaller sites near Vienna. All will be completed within six months to fulfill the contracted terms with Georgia Power, Kelly said.
Investors who need tax credits see these investments as extremely attractive, said Bill Elliott, business development manager for Hannah Solar. Between the Solar Investment Tax Credit and depreciation, the payback on the investment is often short, at five years or fewer. While solar power has a high up-front cost of installation, it takes advantage of a free fuel source.
Combined with long contracts, often a 20-year contract from the utility to purchase power at a given rate, and 25-year guarantee on solar panels from the manufacturers, there is more demand for the investments than projects to fulfill them, Kelly noted.
“It is a great business proposition for investors,” he said.
Hannah develops lease arrangements and completes the applications, then lines up investors who own the resulting installations, along with their contracts to sell solar power to Georgia Power. Hannah is the largest installer of solar in Georgia, and the largest installer of electric vehicle charging stations as well, Kelly said. Hannah installed two charging stations in Mercer Village and one at the Bibb County Courthouse.
The interest in all things sustainable is at an all-time high.
“We have seen explosive growth,” Kelly said.
Local governments are also bullish on solar installations because of the larger tax base, Elliott said. “It’s a wonderful revenue source for a county.”
The deals can also be good for the power companies. Georgia Power accepts contracts based on its avoided costs, or the cost it would take for Georgia Power to create and generate that power itself.
The cost of generating via solar has become competitive enough that the deals make sense for Georgia Power, Kraft said.
Electric Membership Cooperatives
Besides the 865 megawatts from Georgia Power, the Green Power Electric Membership Cooperative, a wholesale green power cooperative selling to 38 of the state’s EMCs, has broken ground on a 20-megawatt array in Hazelhurst, which should come online by next year.
While not under the same regulatory pressure as Georgia Power, EMCs are seeing a rise in interest from their customers, said Jeff Pratt, president of Green Power EMC, which sells power from renewable energy sources to its members.
Green Power will be using the installation in Hazelhurst as a proving ground and test facility, Pratt said, giving cooperatives new expertise for the future. Twenty-seven of the cooperatives opted into the 20-megawatt facility’s power supply.
Jimmy Autry, senior vice president of member and community relations at Flint Energies, said there are 10 customers who have had solar power installations on their homes and are selling back electricity to Flint. The cooperative covers Warner Robins and much of the area to the south and west of the city to the Alabama line.
Flint buys power from one of the first solar arrays in the Green Power system -- a 150 kilowatt system at Clean Control in Warner Robins, but opted out of receiving power from the 20 megawatt installation going in Hazelhurst. However, Flint is looking to a future that will include more solar, Autry said.
“We have a vision that there will be more solar in the mix for Flint and Green Power EMC,” he said.
Flint will have 75 megawatts of generation contracts up for renewal in 2019 and 2020, and some of that energy mix may come from solar, Autry said.
“Over the next 12 months we will be evaluating our options to replace that capacity.”
Solar power will be a part of the mix for many of the cooperatives going forward, Pratt said.
“The model for co-ops is different, because we don’t share the costs with shareholders,” he said. “Our member co-ops focus on reliability and affordability and adopt clean environmental technologies at the pace that people are willing to pay for them.”
Middle Georgia is not relying solely on solar generation to capitalize on the increase in solar demand across the country. MAGE Solar has built a solar assembly plant in Dublin and is seeing strong demand for solar panels around the world, including the Western Hemphisphere, where the Dublin plant’s panels are shipped, said Don Hammond, vice president of sales and marketing for MAGE.
Georgia has become a leader in solar in the Southeast in part through a confluence of interests between conservative political groups and environmentalists, Hammond said.
With the efforts of the Public Service Commission urging Georgia Power, and Georgia Power itself pushing for more installations, the result has been a surge in investment in Georgia, said Coggeshall, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
That has resulted in Georgia’s becoming a regional leader.
“Georgia is becoming a bit of a juggernaut in the solar market in the Southeast,” Hammond said.
With a large number of investors lined up for projects, the other key to making the deals work financially is locating the sites. Among the criteria are flat, unshaded sites, and low land prices. Those prices, and the land, can be found throughout Middle and south Georgia.
Middle Georgia’s land prices are moderate, and it even has a slight advantage in terms of the sun, said Pratt of Green Power.
“Middle Georgia has slightly better sun than you would find in north Georgia and extreme south Georgia,” he said.
Farmers are also a big driver. With experience in big capital investments, as well as large masses of land, they have become big adopters.
“Once we show them the numbers, they are quick to get on board,” Elliott said.
To contact writer Mark Vanderhoek, call 744-4225