An agreement to buy the full output of a 20-megawatt solar project planned for construction in southeast Georgia will increase Green Power EMC's ability to deliver electricity from renewable sources by more than 60 percent.
Planters Electric Membership Corp., based in Millen, and Canoochee EMC, which has offices in Reidsville, Hinesville and Pembroke, are participants in the project. Silicon Ranch Corp., based in Nashville, Tenn., will build and own the ground-based solar array, which will occupy 135 acres near Hazlehurst in Jeff Davis County with more than 87,000 solar modules. With it, Green Power will increase its renewable energy capacity from the current 32 megawatts to about 52, Green Power President Jeff Pratt said.
"This is a major solar power addition, not only to our portfolio but also to the state of Georgia," Pratt said in a news release. "This project moves us down the road to becoming a much more sustainable state."
But in a phone interview, Pratt acknowledged that Green Power's total renewable energy resources remain a relatively small part of its member co-ops' total needs.
Green Power EMC is a cooperative with no power-generating facilities of its own and no direct consumers. Created in 2001, its members are 38 electric membership corporations that serve 4.1 million Georgia residents. Green Power exists as a go-between, contracting with companies that generate electricity using landfill gas, wood waste, solar power and "low impact" water power.
Construction of the Hazlehurst solar farm is slated to begin this year. It could be complete about this time next year, but with engineering studies yet to be finished, the timeline remains indefinite, Pratt said.
Green Power sources
The first type of renewable source Green Power EMC obtained for its member co-ops was biomass, specifically methane gas from landfills. Green Power currently contracts for electricity from a generating facility at a Valdosta landfill and others at landfills in Taylor and Twiggs counties.
Green Power's water-power source is the 2.3 MW Tallassee Shoals Hydroelectric Project, on the middle Oconee River near Athens. It's the only hydropower plant in Georgia certified by the Low-Impact Hydro Institute, which awarded the certification, then the 12th in the nation, in 2004.
A waste wood facility in Rabun County in northeastern Georgia also supplies electricity to participating Green Power co-ops. This facility burns treetops and limbs left from timber harvesting, as well as wood mill waste, Pratt said.
At 20,000 kilowatts, the new solar array at Hazlehurst will dwarf the output of Green Power's two existing solar sources. These are a 115-kilowatt rooftop array on an Athens warehouse owned by the Rooker Company and a 150-KW ground-mounted array owned by Clean Control Corp. at Warner Robins.
Still relatively small
The additional 20 megawatts will be enough power to completely supply about 3,000 households, according to Pratt. At that rate, Green Power's total, expanded capacity would be enough to power fewer than 8,000 homes.
Green Power shares a street address in Tucker with Oglethorpe Power, the co-op that supplies the same member EMCs power from traditional plants. With electricity generated with natural gas, coal, nuclear and hydroelectric, Oglethorpe has a peak summer capacity of about 7,800 megawatts, according to its website. That is 150 times Green Power's predicted capacity with the addition of the new solar plant.
"All of these projects are relatively small compared to the energy needs that the cooperatives have across the state, but back in 2001 we were really the first (Georgia) utility to take an interest and start this process," Pratt said.
Until recently, when Georgia Power has taken an interest and invested in larger projects, Green Power was the state's largest renewable energy supplier, he said.
Not all Green Power member cooperatives participate in all of its projects.
"Each project might have a different set of cooperative members based on their interest and need for energy at the time," Pratt said.
Planters EMC is participating in the new solar project. Planters counts on Green Power EMC for its expertise in evaluating the projects but still approaches each one carefully, said Planters EMC Member Services Manager Randy Hill. Solar power, he said, appeals to some customers as a way to reduce their carbon footprint, but remains inefficient from a cost standpoint.
"The cost of solar power has come down, but it's still relatively high and you're still only talking anywhere from 20 to 25 percent efficient because it's only available during the day, and when it's raining outside or when it's night, solar just doesn't provide the energy that our members need," Hill said.
He judges some of the other renewable sources, such as landfill gas, more reliable than solar.
"There's not anything sexy about landfill gas, but it provides you with a steady, consistent flow of methane gas that you can use to generate power," he said.
Excelsior opts out
Excelsior EMC, which is based in Metter and serves many customers in Bulloch County, is one of the 38 Green Power member co-ops but currently does not participate in any of the renewable energy projects.
Excelsior is "long on capacity" with no need to buy more, said Excelsior EMC Member Services Manager Greg Proctor.
"The nature of renewable projects is typically that they are more expensive than traditional projects, and we just don't feel like that would be a prudent use of our members' money to buy something when we've already got more than we can use," Proctor said.
Excelsior is not opposed to renewable projects and does buy excess power generated by small solar arrays owned by three of its customers, he added.