Valdosta Daily Times

November 10, 2013

Solar power’s slow but steady progress

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — In the past year, we’ve seen several large solar power projects installed around the world.

In Japan, the Kagoshima Nanatsujima Mega Solar Power Plant went live on Nov. 1, taking the title of Japan’s largest solar power plant with a capacity of 70 megawatts.

In the United States, California’s Mojave Desert hosts the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. While the first phase of it went online earlier this year, the fully finished Ivanpah will have a net capacity of 377 megawatts, the largest in the world.

And in what might be a sure sign of solar power’s rise, Walmart has decided to throw its weight behind it, increasing its solar capacity to 89 megawatts, far ahead of its business competitors.

Locally, Valdosta has also become host to solar-panel arrays, with the city leasing land at the Mud Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant to Hannah Solar, a Georgia-based solar company, and Wiregrass Power, part of the Georgia-based Sterling Energy.

Built earlier this year, the Hannah Solar array is comprised of 4,200 solar panels spread over 6.5 acres. With a capacity of 1.25 megawatts, the array will produce an estimated 1.87 million kilowatt hours per year, sold to Georgia Power into its electrical grid.

The Wiregrass Power array is smaller, producing about 350,000 kilowatt hours per year, with Georgia Power also purchasing its output.

On a smaller scale, Valdosta State University held a ceremony on Friday to celebrate its solar panel array, a small, 10 kilowatt array installed at the back of Odum Library, producing 15,000 kilowatt hours per year.

“It’s a relatively small entity, really,” said Michael Noll, a VSU geosciences professor and president of Wiregrass Activists for Clean Energy.

“It’s a small drop in the bucket, but when you throw pebbles in the pond, there are ripples. A drop can become a trickle, then a stream, and then build from there.”

As Noll says, the energy produced is a cough in the library of VSU’s overall energy consumption. As a way of comparison, VSU’s electricity consumption in December 2012 was 3.67 million kilowatt hours.

The power generated by the array is being used by Odum Library, saving VSU a couple thousand dollars a year. With the average

computer using between 75 and 200 watts per hour of use, the array will essentially power a decently sized computer lab.

And while solar arrays can be installed quickly — VSU’s took a few weeks, Hannah Solar’s took a few months — some of the age-old criticisms still apply, foremost among those being the cost of the production and installation of solar panels.

An installation the size of Hannah Solar’s 1.25 megawatt array can cost into the millions.

VSU’s smaller installation cost $69,800, though that includes the cost of the shading structure built to hold the panels on top (Noll estimates a similar array set up at a more efficient site on campus would come around $40,000).

With the cost as high as it is, it can take decades before solar arrays pay for themselves in savings and move into net profitability.

It’s something Ronald Jackson knows.

Since installing the first residential solar panels at a Hahira home in 2010, Jackson’s company, South GA Solar Power, has seen the cost of solar panels and installation come down, aided in part by government rebates.

“Five years ago, it was ridiculously expensive. Now it’s more affordable. I’m excited my city has a major facility.”

While most of South GA Solar Power’s work is with businesses and residences, they also helped develop the Mud Creek array.

Jackson predicts that prices will continue to fall over the next few years, before settling at a solid cost.

It’s something Noll hopes to see. With a 2011 Arizona State University study ranking Georgia high on a list of solar power potentiality, Noll wants Georgia to take advantage of it.

“The 21st century will be a giant leap for mankind,” said Noll. “We will and must improve our energy conservation measure.”