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Solar energy heats up in Georgia

  • Tybee Council Member Paul Wolff shows off one of the first completed Solarize Tybee projects at a recent open house at the Wooldridges on Tybee.
  • Photos special to the Savannah Morning News- St. Andrew’s School 11th-grader Brighton Sandt and upper school science chair Elizabeth Conlon are excited about the donated solar array students will be able to use as a learning tool as it helps power the lower school. Savannah-based One World Sustainable donated the $14,000 system.

From Augusta’s Fort Gordon to beach homes on Tybee, solar energy is booming in Georgia.

In Chatham, the Solarize program has flipped the switch on panels at four homes over the past few weeks and counts three more under construction. It has contracts on 35 installations in all and expected more before Friday’s signing deadline, said Grant Tallon, program manager for Atlanta-based Hannah Solar, the selected installer. A final count will be available Tuesday.

Solarize, which started locally as Solarize Tybee and then spread to the whole county, allows home and business owners to take advantage of bulk purchases to drive down the cost. By early last week, participants had signed contracts for a total of 202 kilowatts.

“The most encouraging thing has been people’s attitude, their interest and enthusiasm,” Tallon said. “In a lot of ways I think this area is more progressive than Atlanta overall.”

Participation drove the price down to at most $2.75 a watt, possibly less depending on last-minute sign ups. After taking into account a 30 percent federal tax rebate, Solarize estimates an average system, big enough to provide about half a typical family’s energy needs, will cost less than $10,000.

That price sounds good to Tybee Council member Paul Wolff, who has championed the program even though he won’t benefit directly; he already has a 5.5 kilowatt system on his Tybee roof.

“Personally, $2.75 is less than half what I paid five years ago for the same type system,” Wolff said.

The success of Solarize has seen local solar contractors stepping up their visibility, too.

SolarSmith’s Julian Smith is installing an 18-kilowatt system on the old Seaboard Coastline Freight building on Louisville Road, posting his progress on FaceBook as he goes. The building now houses Reese and Company.

“It’s gonna knock his electric bill down by 90 percent,” Smith said. “They don’t operate at night. If they shut down everything but the fridge it could knock out 99 percent.”

Earlier this month, One World Sustainable donated a $14,000 pole-mounted system to St. Andrew’s School. Owner Keith Freeman is an alumni parent and former board member.

The two-kilowatt gift will offset some utility costs on the adjacent lower school but will serve mainly as a teaching tool. Students will be able to interface with the array on classroom computers and adjust the angle to best catch the sun’s rays.

“This takes what we do in classroom and brings it out of the classroom into the real world,” said Elizabeth Conlon, the science chair of the upper school. “Within 3 minutes of adjusting the angle we’ll get real time data on how quickly that will change. We can monitor around the seasons, time of day, (if it’s) cloudy, sunny.”

Freeman’s business is Savannah-based but has installed solar all over the Carolinas, Georgia and the Caribbean. He teamed with Brad Sherman of Coastal Solar Power to bid on Solarize but wasn’t chosen. Together they’re also planning a solar project for Godley Station Elementary.

“We’re trying get a more local footprint,” Freeman said.

Part of that footprint will include a 23-kilowatt solar array on the roof of the under-construction Homewood Suites hotel on River Street. That matches the size of the panels on the Georgia Power building downtown but is dwarfed by the 85 kilowatts at Sustainable Fellwood, a mixed-use, mixed-income development on Bay Street.

While Solarize and its competitors have attracted lots of small scale participants, even collectively those projects can’t compete with the size of two new Georgia Power installations. Hinesville’s Fort Stewart and Augusta’s Fort Gordon are each gearing up for 30-megawatt solar generation facilities, each covering more than 200 acres.

A third installation is coming as part of what’s dubbed the Georgia 3x30 solar project. They are scheduled to be completed and begin delivering power to the state’s electric grid by the end of 2016.

“These solar projects support the Army and their mission to not only strengthen local Georgia bases as economic and community engines, but also their efforts to further the development of renewable energy and enhance national security,” said Kenny Coleman, senior vice president of marketing for Georgia Power on Friday. “We’re committed to assisting our customers with all of their energy needs, including providing information and expert advice to help them make informed choices about adding solar — on an Army base or a home rooftop.”

The Georgia Public Service Commission pushed the company to develop this new solar, which will be owned by Georgia Power. The three projects will be brought online at or below what it would cost the company to generate comparable energy from other sources. Georgia lawmakers also gave solar a boost in the last session, with The Solar Power Free-Market Financing Act. Signed by the governor on May 12, the law allows solar companies to finance the construction of solar panels for a home, business or institution by having the property owner pay them for the electricity the installed system produces.

Jennette Gayer, the director of advocacy group Environment Georgia, keeps tabs on the state’s renewable energy progress. Large scale installations, like the new military ones, have pushed Georgia from a solar laggard into the top half of states for solar capacity, she said. The state was ranked 15th in installed solar capacity at the end of last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“We haven’t done as well at rooftops, distributed solar,” Gayer said. “But Savannah is the shining star in that analysis. You have Solarize and it’s done what it’s supposed to, it’s inspired people to opt in. And it drives the market in other ways as well. That’s exciting. It’s exactly what we need to happen. You can’t have just solar panels in a field or on roofs. To be in the top five states you need to figure out how to do both.” 

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