Here comes the sun
In a tiny Georgia town, a solar farm is producing big energy.
Mon, Aug 09, 2010 at 03:38 PM
HELPING HIMSELF: Trey Pippin, a local pecan farmer, built the 200-kilowatt solar farm in April to help lower the cost of irrigating his 300-acre pecan orchard. (Photo courtesy of Georgia Power)
In Arlington, in southwest Georgia, life moves slowly. Most motorists passing through this farming community on highways 62 and 216 are headed east to Albany.
For many of the 1,500 residents, the most excitement comes from conversations in the new Dollar General or at Taylor’s, a grocery store a few blocks west of downtown.
But this tiny town is the home of something big, and it’s causing quite a stir. Hidden in a pecan orchard just outside the city limits on Highway 62 lies the largest private commercial solar farm in Georgia.
Trey Pippin, a local pecan farmer, built the 200-kilowatt solar farm in April to help lower the cost of irrigating his 300-acre pecan orchard.
Though the solar farm has caused some hoopla around this sleepy town, it has caused even more of a stir for Georgia Power. Pippin’s solar farm, which began operating in May, has given the company’s Green Energy program a big boost.
“His solar farm is the largest in the Green Energy program, and projects like this help us build our program,” said Wilson Mallard, manager of the Green Energy program. “As the Green Energy Program grows, we will need more solar projects like this one.”
Constructed of 836 Suniva photovoltaic panels, the solar farm can generate more than 310,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy annually. Pippin will sell the energy to Georgia Power under a five-year contract.
Pippin’s solar farm is one of two in the state generating more than 100 kWh. Savannah dermatologist Dr. Sidney Smith and Brunswick pathologist Dr. Pat Godbey recently built a 132-kWh solar farm near Statesboro.
“One of the challenges for the company is having enough capacity available,” said Mallard. “We are only allowed to buy as much premium-priced (17 cents per kilowatt-hour) solar as we can sell in Premium Green Energy, so the more customers we get to support the program, the more we can buy.”
State regulations limit Georgia Power to purchases of solar energy from commercial systems to 100 kW or less, so Pippin’s farm is divided into five sections. The first one is 100 kW, and the other four are 25 kW each.
Pippin’s solar system is generating between 1,000 to 1,100 kWh daily.
“I have been very pleased with its performance, and I have been very pleased with the help I have received from Georgia Power,” said Pippin. “I think it has been a growing experience for me and Georgia Power.”
Pippin said the drought that gripped the state between 2008 and 2009 forced him to look at alternative energy options to run his irrigation system. Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture mentioned that solar power might be an option, and Georgia Power had a program to support it.
“I quickly called Georgia Power, and we started the process of putting a plan together,” he said. “Georgia Power’s interest in the program gave me a lot of confidence that I was doing the right thing.”
State and federal tax credits helped Pippin offset some of the initial costs to install the solar system. Businesses can qualify for up to $500,000 in tax credits for solar electric systems; homeowners can get up to $10,500.
The solar farm was built by ESA Renewables, a Florida-based solar system provider, in 30 days. Georgia Power engineers worked to integrate the company’s infrastructure with the infrastructure of the solar system.
“We had to figure out how to integrate the two-phase system that was out here to a three-phase system, and do it safely and reliably,” said Henry Lee Everson, Albany engineering supervisor.
Everson said teamwork from various departments, including distribution, transmission and metering, allowed the company to create a seamless integration of the two systems.
“I think we did a pretty good job,” said Everson. “It has been running smoothly.”
The panels absorb solar energy, which is collected and converted into alternating current. That current goes into the grid. A monitoring system tracks how much the system produces throughout the day.
Scott Gentry, distributed generation project manager, said solar has its limits, but the company is committed to solar in Georgia where it makes sense. In July, the state Public Service Commission approved Georgia Power’s plan to build up to one megawatt of solar across the state for research and development purposes, so the company can learn more about building solar resources.
“Solar has a 15 percent to 18 percent efficiency in Georgia and the Southeast because it does not produce at night, and other factors, including cloud cover and high humidity, can reduce the panels’ productivity,” said Gentry. “But we want to add as much solar to our system as we can, and these solar farms are helping us achieve our goal.”
This story was reported by Carey Adams.