Solar Triangle – The Dispatch

The old saying goes, “Cut your own firewood and it will warm you twice.”

That idea, applied to economic development in the Golden Triangle, goes a long way in understanding the sudden arrival of a new industry, solar power.

Over the last 15 months, three large-scale solar energy facilities have been approved by TVA — two on adjoining properties in west Lowndes County and another in Clay County.

Florida-based Origis Energy will build and operate all three facilities, which when fully operational, will generate a combined 550 megawatts of solar energy and 300 megawatts of battery, or reserve, solar power. The first of the three facilities is scheduled to begin solar power production in October 2022 while its sister facility will come on line in the fall of 2023. The Clay County facility should be operational in 2024. Starkville-Oktibbeha county officials have signed a tentative fee-in-lieu agreement for the potential development of a facility there while the Clay County site has an additional 2,000 acres available for future expansion.

Combined, the two solar facilities in Lowndes County represent the largest solar energy facility in the state.

It might be a bit of a reach to say that the Golden Triangle has become the Solar Triangle, but the arrival of an emerging industry built on renewable energy will have a real impact on the community. While the solar facilities won’t produce many permanent jobs — no more than four or five employees are needed to maintain operations once the hundreds of thousands of solar panels are installed —  it will produce millions of dollars in tax revenues for local government and schools.

To understand how it is that the Golden Triangle has become a key player in solar energy production, it began not with the first solar facility built in Lowndes County in 2014, a relatively tiny 1 megawatt facility built near the Lowndes County Industrial Park, but at the turn of the millennium when the area’s industrial boom was in its infancy.

To accommodate the large factories that were arriving in the county, large transmission lines were needed to supply the power needed by the newly-arriving industries.

“When  I came here there was one 161 kV feed to the industrial park,” Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said. “So, with each new industry, we had to build that power infrastructure. We have five now, so when TVA started contracting for green power in big numbers, we had the electrical infrastructure they needed.”

Suddenly, those transmission lines to supply industry with power became the means of transmitting the power that will soon be generated by the solar facilities. Like cutting your own firewood, those transmission lines will soon serve a dual purpose.

Having that electrical infrastructure in place was an important factor in Origis’ decision to develop facilities in the Golden Triangle, but it wasn’t the only factor, said  Johan Vanhee, chief commercial and procurement officer for Origis. Vanhee began talking with 14 landowners to secure the 4,000 acres that will be the site of the two Lowndes County facilities in 2018.

“It all boils down to the ability to provide renewable energy to our customers in a reliable and affordable way,” Vanhee said. “Siting the right location for utility scale solar generation, especially when combined with an energy storage facility, is a bit of a science or art.  There are a number of factors that are evaluated, such as but not limited to, solar resources. There is more sunshine in the south than in the State of Vermont, so to speak. Second is  there sufficient transmission capability to avoid new transmission line construction? Third, is  there sufficient and cost-efficient land available that will not significantly impact the local environment? We take into account environmental and social justice aspects to eliminate negative impacts to the local communities. Finally, what is the local economic development culture and leadership support, which is very crucial,  and can our investment contribute in attracting new businesses? The Golden Triangle is a rare occasion where all the pieces of that puzzle came perfectly together.”

TVA has been very aggressive in building its green energy portfolio, having increased its solar contracts by 60 percent since the beginning of 2020.

“What’s important to remember is that these are spec facilities,” Higgins said. “All of the power that will be generated at these solar facilities have already been sold. “This is a gamble on TVA’s part. It’s a done deal.”

Vanhee said that while his company has the potential to expand on its operations in the Golden Triangle, it’s difficult at this point to predict what the future might hold.

“Much will depend on the capacity of the TVA transmission system to absorb more renewable generation,” Vanhee said. “Only the future will tell if there is room for more utility scale solar facilities in the years to follow.”

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]