State’s largest so­lar farm

So­cial Cir­cle hosts 125 acres of pan­els

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - GABRIEL KHOULI gkhouli@cov­

Ge­or­gia’s largest so­lar farm can sneak up on even a sus­pect­ing first-time passerby, as long coun­try roads lined with ru­ral homes and large pas­tures sud­denly give way to a raised field full of row af­ter row of gleam­ing (on a sunny day, of course) so­lar pan­els.

Si­mons So­lar Farm be­gan pro­duc­ing elec­tric­ity and sell­ing it to Ge­or­gia Power around mid-De- cem­ber, ahead of the orig­i­nal sched­ule for an $85 mil­lion project that built more than 100,000 so­lar pan­els on 125 acres of what used to be the fam­ily farm of Si­mon So­lar owner Steve Ivey.

Lo­cated on land at the in­ter­sec­tion of Hawkins Academy and So­cial Cir­cle Fair­play roads, east of So­cial Cir­cle, the sprawl­ing so­lar farm is the first of many largescale so­lar farms in the plan­ning or de­vel­op­ment stages around the state.

Si­mons So­lar Farm will pro­duce up to 30 megawatts (MW) of power, which will be sold to Ge­or­gia Power un­der a 20-year pur­chase agree­ment (which Ge­or­gia Power said is pro­pri­etary for com­pet­i­tive rea­sons). Ivey said the farm’s full ca­pac­ity can power about 7,000 homes, while a day with­out op­ti­mal sun can still power around 4,000 homes.

Be­cause Ge­or­gia Power sells elec­tric­ity at the same price all around the state, the new so­lar farm won’t af­fect area res­i­dents’ prices, but ad­vo­cates say the ex- pan­sion of so­lar power will lead to an in­creas­ingly less ex­pen­sive form of elec­tric­ity as tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to im­prove, with the im­me­di­ate ben­e­fits of di­ver­si­fy­ing the power port­fo­lio with a cleaner, re­new­able source.

So­lar in its in­fancy

Ge­or­gia Power has ap­prox­i­mately 100 MW of so­lar-gen­er­ated elec­tric­ity ca­pac­ity in­stalled

now, said spokesman Brian Green, a num­ber that is sched­uled to grow rapidly to nearly 800 MW of so­lar power by 2017. The com­pany had only 11 MW of so­lar ca­pac­ity at the be­gin­ning of 2013, Green said.

Even with the in­crease, so­lar power will only com­prise a frac­tion of Ge­or­gia Power’s to­tal ca­pac­ity, which to­tals 45,740 MW, ac­cord­ing to its web­site, in­clud­ing 36 per­cent coal, 45 per­cent oil and gas, 17 per­cent nu­clear, and 2 per­cent hy­dro ( a port­fo­lio that will change with the de­com­mis­sion­ing of mul­ti­ple coal plants and the ad­di­tion of two nu­clear re­ac­tors at Plant Vog­tle, as well as so­lar’s growth and for­ays into biomass).

“This agree­ment with Si­mons So­lar Farm is an ex­cit­ing mile­stone as we con­tinue to add cost- ef­fec­tive so­lar ca­pac­ity to our gen­er­a­tion port­fo­lio. It’s also a great ex­am­ple of the growth of so­lar ca­pac­ity in Ge­or­gia — our state has one of the fastest- grow­ing and com­pet­i­tive so­lar mar­kets in the na­tion, de­vel­oped with­out a re­new­able man­date and no ad­di­tional cost to cus­tomers,” Green said in an email.

A 2010 study by an Ari­zona State Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor rated Ge­or­gia No. 5 in the na­tion in terms of states that would ben­e­fit from de­vel­op­ing and us­ing so­lar power, and ad­vo­cates are hop­ing the projects com­ing online will lead to even more in­vest­ment mov­ing for­ward.

Lauren “Bubba” McDon­ald, a mem­ber of the Ge­or­gia Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion ( which reg- ulates Ge­or­gia Power) and one of the state’s fore­most so­lar pro­po­nents, said the cost of so­lar power con­tin­ues to drop and the so­lar farms be­ing built now are even less ex­pen­sive than Si­mon So­lar Farm.

While other sources of elec­tric­ity, like nat­u­ral gas and oil, have un­cer­tain fu­tures, the price of the sun’s en­ergy isn’t chang­ing any­time soon.

“The sun’s en­ergy is free, and it will be free six months from now and six years from now,” McDon­ald said Tues­day. “The cost of pan­els has gone down, and the tech­nol­ogy for de­liv­er­ing power from so­lar pan­els ( has im­proved); we have de­vel­oped a per­fect storm to de­velop so­lar in our state.”

Cities that sell elec­tric­ity, like Cov­ing­ton, Ox­ford and Mans­field, and elec­tric mem­ber­ship co­op­er­a­tives ( EMCs), like Snap­ping Shoals EMC, are not on the same so­lar power ex­pan­sion plan as Ge­or­gia Power but can and do reach their own so­lar power agree­ments.

Ivey spent a decade re­search­ing po­ten­tial uses for his fam­ily’s for­mer cot­ton farm be­fore set­tling on so­lar pan­els. Ivey’s grand­fa­ther, Robert Si­mons, pur­chased the land 1935 and farmed it along with other fam­i­lies un­til 1950; it’s been used spar­ingly for hunt­ing and camp­ing in the decades since.

Ideas of re­viv­ing the cot­ton were dis­missed, along with thoughts of a chicken op­er­a­tion and even a golf course, be­fore Ivey’s re­search into so­lar pan­els in an ef­fort to more ef­fi­ciently heat his pool led him to a so­lar farm. An ex­ist­ing Ge­or­gia Power sub­sta­tion on site and ready to be tapped into, also helped fa­cil­i­tate the idea. He tack­led sev­eral hur­dles, in­clud­ing cost, as he had to front the ini­tial in­vest­ment ( Ivey owns IMI Mu­sic in Nashville), and Wal­ton County’s or­di­nances, which had no pro­vi­sion for such a use; he lit­er­ally wrote much of the or­di­nance for not only a so­lar farm, but also for res­i­dents and busi­nesses to be able to use so­lar pan­els.

One of the ben­e­fits of so­lar pan­els is that they re­tain 97 per­cent of their ef­fec­tive­ness af­ter 25 years, Ivey said, mak­ing them in­ex­pen­sive to main­tain. Si­mons So­lar Farm doesn’t have any other build­ings on site and doesn’t re­quire any in- per­son su­per­vi­sion but can be mon­i­tored re­motely and uses a perime­ter fence and se­cu­rity sys­tem to pro­tect the pan­els.

Ed­u­ca­tion was one the big­gest hur­dles Ivey faced in get­ting his so­lar farm up and run­ning — he went door- to- door to all of his neigh­bors — and it’s some­thing he wants to con­tinue to do. He’s hop­ing to set up a lo­ca­tion, maybe in So­cial Cir­cle, where stu­dents and adults can see and touch a so­lar panel and learn how it works and fol­low that up with a tour of the so­lar farm.

As far as busi­ness plans, Ivey still has 100 un­used acres of prop­erty next to the so­lar farm. He’s go­ing to wait be­fore div­ing into another ven­ture, but in­spi­ra­tion can strike in a sec­ond and the fu­ture looks bright.

Dar­rell Everidge/The Cov­ing­ton News

Si­mons So­lar Farm is the first of many large-scale so­lar farms that are in the plan­ning or de­vel­op­ment stage around the state. It is on 125 acres of what used to be the fam­ily farm of owner Steve Ivey.

sub­mit­ted photo /The Cov­ing­ton News

One hun­dred twenty five acres of land on teh for­mer Si­mon Farm is now ded­i­cated to har­vest­ing so­lar power.

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