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Solar power fueling job growth in Georgia

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Floyd, Polk and Gordon counties are among the areas in Georgia where the solar power industry is really beginning to heat up.

The state has seen a 225-percent increase in jobs related to the solar-energy industry — the highest in the nation, according to Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

In Floyd County, Pirelli Tire is developing a relationship with Hannah Solar LLC, a supplier of solar panels. Plans are for a three-acre solar farm next to Pirelli’s North American headquarters in Rome.

The facility will be able to produce about 750,000 kilowatts of power annually, enough power to run about 65 private homes.

Atlanta based Renewvia Energy established a solar farm on Ga. 53 in Gordon County, just north of the Floyd County line, which is capable of producing more than 250,000 kilowatt-hours of power.

Trey Jarrard, one of the partners with Renewvia, said his company also just completed a second solar farm in Gordon, off Interstate 75 exit 320. It was built in conjunction with a major new poultry operation.

“A group is building 12 of the largest state-of-the-art hatcheries and they wanted to come out of the ground with a more energy-efficient operation,” Jarrard said. “We started working with them at the design stage almost a year and a half ago, to incorporate solar in their electrical distribution plan.”

Renewvia did all of the engineering required by the Tennessee Valley Authority and arranged for four solar arrays, which have just been installed. The hatcheries are about 80-percent complete.

Jarrard said the arrays are capable of producing 285,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Three locations in Polk County also were selected for solar farms. One is situated in Cedartown’s North Business Park, another is off Marquette Road in Rockmart and the third was developed off Ga. 101 in Aragon.

All three of the Polk County projects are part of Georgia Power Co.’s Advanced Solar Initiative.

Pricing and demand

Resch, the SEIA president, said the jump in jobs related to the solar power industry comes largely from a combination of pricing and Georgia Power’s program to add solar-generating capacity.

SEIA credits falling prices for solar panels and a 12.8-percent annual increase in the state’s average electricity rate, which is double the national average. Those price changes are prompting more customers to consider installing solar panels on their own property, he said.

Jarrard said the cost of the product has declined exponentially over the past five years.

“You don’t need aggressive incentives to make it pencil-out for the end-user,” Jarrard said. “The cost of installation has decreased, mainly driven by the cost of the solar panels declining at such a rapid rate over the past several years. The average system cost has been cut in half, for the most part.”

At the same time, Georgia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, is in the midst of its Advanced Solar Initiative in which it is contracting with solar companies to produce power.

Earlier this month, it got 1,204 applications for contracts to build 200 medium-scale projects for the utility.

“You’re talking about a huge economic gain to the state by giving consumers what they want,” Resch said.

Pete Marte, chief executive officer of Hannah Solar, estimates those 1,204 applications represent more than $1 billion that the applying companies are ready to invest in the technology — mainly because the consumer-product firms they supply are demanding it in order to market their sustainability.

Approximately one-tenth of the potential billion dollars in new investment will get contracts.

Last year, Hannah officials estimated their investment in the solar array at Pirelli in Rome would amount to close to $1 million. Hannah is subleasing the three-acre tract adjacent to the plant. The power produced by the facility will be sold to Georgia Power.

The Georgia Power ASI has set a goal of contracting for more than 200 megawatts of capacity by the end of this year.

The initiative was conceived with the idea of enhancing growth of the solar industry in Georgia. In addition to more energy and jobs, the expansion is a boon for rural areas like Polk County with undeveloped land.

Rockmart City Manager Jeff Ellis said the Rockmart Development Authority leased the property to Atlanta-based Inman Solar for 20 years, with an option to renew for another 20.

“It’s land that we knew that we probably were not going to be very productive with, as far as economic development. It wasn’t a prime piece of land,” Ellis said.

The lease will provide approximately $320,000 over the first 200-year period.

“It’s not much, but it’s money that will come in to pay for a piece of land that would just be sitting there and help us to recruit other industry,” Ellis said.

The facilities in Cedartown and Aragon were developed in the same manner.

Today, the state has 146 solar companies as well as a number of companies that make the actual panels.

Together they account for about 2,600 jobs, up nearly 1,800 jobs from the previous year, according to SEIA’s annual industry survey.

Georgia ranked seventh in the amount of total solar-generating capacity in operation in 2013. Resch predicted the Peach State would leap into the Top 5 states by the time next year’s survey is conducted.

Jason Rooks, director of government affairs for the Georgia SEIA, said he hopes the General Assembly next year will pass legislation to open the door to additional financing options that have fueled the flood of solar-panel installations and the related jobs in the states that are ahead of Georgia.

Morris News Service contributed to this report.