Georgians have planted crops in their rural soil and watched them grow and ripen in the sun since colonial times. Now some of those same fields are producing a very different yield: solar energy for electric cooperatives. “My grandmother was actually born about a mile from where we’re standing,” says Tim Robeson, of Hazlehurst, Georgia. “My cousins own some of the surrounding fields and still farm tobacco, corn, cotton, soybeans, and other crops. This is home.”
But Robeson, 52, is not a farmer. He’s a solar technician. And although he works throughout Georgia, he spends much of his time inspecting, maintaining, and servicing solar arrays in the state’s sun-baked southeastern region.
Employed by Miller Brothers Solar, Inc., Robeson often works at two massive utility-scale arrays in Hazlehurst that supply electricity to
Green Power Electric Membership Corp., a renewable energy cooperative serving 38 of the state’s distribution co-ops.
Hazlehurst I, commissioned in 2015, is a 20-MW fixed- mounted array located on 270 acres in Georgia’s Jeff Davis County. Hazlehurst II, which began producing power in December 2016, is 52 MW and occupies 480 acres of a 942-acre site about two miles away.
“There are 633,600 individual modules on this site mounted on 10,024 tracker tables,” says Robeson, describing Hazlehurst II. “At full production, that’s around 72 million watts of direct current.”
While every watt produced is available to Green Power EMC member co-ops, the arrays are actually owned and were developed by Silicon Ranch Corporation, an NRECA associate member that has partnered with electric coop- eratives on several utility-scale solar projects across the country.
“We own and operate every facility that we develop. That’s given us greater buying power with our operations and maintenance partners,” says Matt Beasley, Silicon Ranch’s chief marketing officer. “More importantly, this model of long-term ownership aligns our values with those of our co-op partners and means we share their ‘concern for community.’ We now have more than 120 operating facilities in 14 states, coast to coast.”
The company has been selected to add nearly half a gigawatt more of capacity to Green Power EMC members’ portfolio, which is expected to reach about 1,000 MW by late 2021. This includes a separate power purchase agreement with another Georgia co-op, negotiated inde- pendently, that will provide 102.5 MW of capacity by later this year.
In less time than it takes a child to go from kindergarten to high school graduation, solar power has risen from science-project curiosity to a viable source of electricity. In Georgia, Green Power EMC has been a big part of that story, providing a blueprint that could help guide electric co-ops in other states.
“Solar energy had been around for decades; most people didn’t understand it and had no idea how it worked,” says Jeff Pratt, president of Green Power EMC. “So one of the most interesting projects we started back in 2005 was an education program that was dedicated to schools, to help schoolchildren understand more about solar energy.”
Dozens of small demonstration solar arrays were built on school campuses, primarily as learning tools, providing data that students could use in math and science classes and working examples of how solar power could ultimately meet some of their future energy needs.
“They were 1-kilowatt arrays, so they were about six panels at that time,” Pratt recalls. “Those six panels would cost us about $16,000 to $18,000 to install for a specific school—all for education.”
The program, Sun Power in Schools, is still up and running.
“We have about 100 schools engaged in the state of Georgia using the curriculum,” Pratt says.
The educational arrays soon led to the growth of small- scale commercial solar installations across the state.
“These were 100 to 200 kilowatts, with maybe 300 to 600 panels in an array,” Pratt says. “They were constructed by small businesses, local to the community, that would always use local labor.”
To gain more knowledge of the technology, and to help advise consumer-members, co-ops built their own arrays, passing on lessons learned about maintenance and upkeep and often displaying real-time energy production data on co-op-sponsored websites.
“As the cost came down, we started learning more about opportunities to finance and construct and put the whole solar deal structure together,” Pratt says. “We started finding that there were few companies that were well-posi- tioned to put the whole scope of a project together to really eke out the financial benefits and economies of scale.”
Green Power EMC Operations Manager Ben Oberman
As interest increased and prices declined, utility-scale solar took hold.
“Cost of the equipment has declined maybe 80 percent in the last six or seven years. That change alone has enabled us to find opportunities to help meet cooperatives’ cost- effective wholesale power costs,” Pratt says. “That has helped create opportunities to bring solar into the mainstream part of wholesale power production for our cooperatives.”
In addition to Pratt’s current Green Power EMC job, which he took in 2010, he is also director of energy effi- ciency at Oglethorpe Power Cooperative, the Tucker, Georgia-based generation co-op. When Green Power started expanding rapidly, he looked to Oglethorpe
for additional talent, hiring Operations Manager Ben Oberman to be Green Power EMC’s first operations manager in early 2018.
“We work with all of our electric membership corpora- tions,” Oberman says. “We talk about what their needs are from a generation and transmission perspective.”
Those conversations have led to development of several projects, including Hazlehurst I and II and eight or nine new utility-scale projects that Oberman says will increase solar purchases by more than seven times today’s installed capacity for Green Power EMC members.
Local Projects; Local Needs
Meeting the demands of individual members through-out Georgia also spawned a niche for cooperative- owned and community solar, made available by subscrip- tion or share-purchase plans and offered through the member’s utility bill.
“When we talk to our members about renewables, we ask the question: ‘Are you in favor of renewable energy?’ Well, yes. Almost everyone is,” says John Middleton, the CEO and general manager of
Okefenoke Rural Electric Membership Corp. “But if you follow it up with: How much more are you willing to pay for renewable energy? The answer is, ‘Nothing,’ essentially. Today very few members are willing to make that investment.”
But members do want competitively priced renewable power, and when the costs are levelized or likely to decline as the price of other commodities rise, the investment is a hedge against uncertainty. That’s making subscription-based community solar a very popular option.
“It helps them try it out and really get an idea of what solar means to their bill and what it might mean to future generations as solar continues to develop,” Pratt says. “Consumer-members get all the energy benefits on their bill, just as though they own the facility. So this program gives them an opportunity to get the value out of solar without all the ownership responsibilities.”
Even though it participates in several other Green Power EMC projects, Nahunta, Georgia-based Okefenoke REMC built three community arrays totaling 2 MW in its service territory in response to its consumer-members wanting a renewable option.
“We offer it on a subscription basis, and basically we sell blocks that are roughly 1 kilowatt in size. And our members can sign up for one block or multiple blocks based on their usage,” Middleton says. “If I were in the market for solar, our cooperative solar program is a better option than a rooftop array because there’s no upfront cost, there’s no worries about all the things that go along with ownership of a system, and there’s no long-term commitment.”
Outside of the Alma, Georgia, headquarters of
Satilla Rural Electric Membership Corp., a modest 1-kW array was installed as the basis for member education. It’s also served as a training ground for co-op staff eager to expand their skillsets to include aspects of solar technology.
“We were starting to get some inquiries from our members about what can we expect from solar,” recalls Romeo Reyes, Satilla’s president and CEO. “We put that 1-kilowatt array outside just so that we could get the real data for what a kilowatt would generate.”
The co-op later participated in Green Power EMC proj- ects, including Hazlehurst I.
“So from there, we built a 1-megawatt array here locally, and we actually offer that as a community solar project,” says Reyes, whose co-op serves 56,000 meters in south- eastern Georgia. “We’ve got members that are interested in participating in solar and they can’t afford to do it at their home or cannot install it on their rooftops if they live in a mobile home. We offer them the ability to subscribe from this array. We never thought it was going to happen as quickly as it did. When it started, it picked up momentum, began to move forward, and members jumped on board.”
Reyes and other Georgia EMC member CEOs say part of the success of subscription-based solar projects is that they offer the benefits of solar, just like ownership, without the concerns for maintenance and the slow payback of upfront costs.
Solar arrays can also take spent agricultural land and dormant industrial sites and return them to productivity for 30 years or longer, providing jobs and strengthening local tax rolls, says Reyes, citing the Hazlehurst projects as examples. Silicon Ranch is one of the largest taxpayers in Jeff Davis County.
“It was good for the economy and our Jeff Davis County area. Silicon Ranch, the developer that worked on those projects, hired local,” Reyes says. “They were able to get a lot of folks in in the surrounding counties, train them, and put them to work.”