Renewable energy is on the way. Currently over 2,500 solar farms can be found across the United States. In South Georgia, Walton Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) and Silicon Ranch Corporation have three new solar farms in Stewart, Colquitt and Jeff Davis counties, generating over 287 megawatts of solar energy.
Here in Emanuel County, Commissioner Guy Singletary and the Emanuel County Board of Commissioners are contacted by nearly ten commercial solar farms a year looking for places with the necessary infrastructure and load-bearing wires. Even though Emanuel County contains areas that meet the necessary criteria, the commissioners want to make sure guidelines are established before any break ground. “We just want to make sure we get ahead of this,” says Singletary. In order to do so, the board crafted the Emanuel County Solar Farm Ordinance.
Communities with commercial solar farms clearly benefit from generated power and a tax base with no major service burden, states Singletary, but there are several negatives to consider. The average life of a solar panel is 25 years. What will happen to those panels when they no longer work? “We recognize large solar farms are unsightly if they are not maintained properly. We also recognize there’s a useful life on that equipment and what is already unsightly becomes more so when abandoned.” The ordinance contains regulations, items to be handled beforehand to ensure the county isn’t left with thousand-acre eyesores in the end.
Few people would want to live right next to a line of solar panels. One regulation is to establish the need for setbacks. In land management, a setback is the minimum distance which a structure must be placed away from a street or building. This means solar panels will be required to have an area of vegetation between them and roadways or private properties.
“If something were to catch on fire, we wouldn’t want a case where we couldn’t get into the facility because it’s locked down,” states Singletary. “So we require a certain level of access.”
Therefore, sections of the ordinance deal with signage as it relates to safety requirements and access to public safety.
Finally, a certain level of maintenance is required at the site and when the life of the solar farm is over (25-33 years), to ensure the land is at least returned back to its original state, if not improved and to ensure the money is there for that purpose, Singletary notes, the commission requires “bonds be paid on the front end to ensure 30 years from now you’ve already paid to have that product removed.”
So why don’t we see any large solar farms yet?
“It’s not as simple as dropping a pin and saying let’s put one here and agreeing to ordinance terms,” Singletary notes.“It’s a very competitive, multiple-year process with many hoops and hurdles. Solar farms have to be awarded contracts for the power they generate from Georgia Power and EMC.” These companies have to develop a project, make sure the project works, and know the liability of a project. Even more importantly the companies need to know the projected profits, based on the cost of land purchases and/or land leases, easement price purchases, taxes, equipment costs and installation, and upkeep costs. Once all the costs are factored in, they have to determine how much energy they will be able to produce. The cost of these items is subtracted from the value of selling the energy to come up with a cost per megawatt, Singletary explains. “That number is essentially what Georgia Power and EMC are looking at when determining which projects to award. So at any given time there could be forty or fifty applications for solar farms across the state but they are only going to award four.”
Georgia Power has not awarded a contract to any of the prospective solar farms yet. Some citizens may not want solar farms everywhere. To these people Singletary mentions, “The truth of the matter is based on the infrastructure here we could only accommodate so many anyways. So it’s not like we could receive 50,000 acres of solar because the lines here couldn’t accommodate that amount of power. There’s only the capacity for a few 1,500 acre solar farms in the Swainsboro area based on our current infrastructure.”
The first draft of the solar farm ordinance was put out at least a year ago and has continuously been updated and modified. It was approved at the August Board of Commissioner’s meeting.