Solar Power Booms in Georgia, Where It Isn’t Mandated

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Georgia has no mandates requiring power companies to add renewable energy and hasn’t made climate change a political priority. Solar power is booming there anyway.

The state went from having virtually no solar industry a decade ago to ranking ninth nationwide in installed solar capacity this year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Solar has flourished in Georgia as tech companies such as Facebook Inc. FB 1.20% look to locate facilities near cheap renewable-energy sources and rural communities turn to solar farms to create tax revenues and jobs.

Much of the initial build-out of solar and wind power in the U.S. over the past three decades was driven by mandates in states such as Iowa, California, Colorado and New York that required utilities to source a certain amount of renewables. But wind and solar are now gaining market share even in states with no such requirements, as Georgia’s experience shows.

Republican regulators have pushed the state’s major utility, Southern Co. SO 1.42% subsidiary Georgia Power, to invest in solar, saying that economic factors make it an attractive energy source beyond its carbon-free characteristics.

“Don’t come into my office talking about climate change or the environment,” said Tim Echols, who has served for the past decade on the elected, all-Republican public-service commission that regulates the state’s investor-owned utilities. “Talk about new jobs, talk about low-cost energy, talk about reduction of transmission lines,” he said. “Learn to speak Republican here.”

Solar installation prices in Georgia have fallen 43% over the past five years, according to data from SEIA. Similar declines in price are behind the solar-industry growth in states across the Southeast, many of which also lack renewable-energy mandates.

“I oppose any renewable portfolio standard—it’s not necessary.” said Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, who serves with Mr. Echols on the public-service commission.

Georgia Power, which serves 2.6 million customers across the state, has added more than 570 solar projects totaling close to 2,000 megawatts to its energy portfolio in the past decade, according to company spokesman Jeff Wilson.

While Georgia Power has led the state in solar additions, rural Georgia’s smaller electric membership cooperatives, or EMCs, have leaned into solar power as well, catching the eye of large companies like Facebook.

The tech giant has partnered with Walton EMC in northern Georgia, which will buy energy on Facebook’s behalf through a long-term power purchase agreement with a solar developer, Tennessee-based Silicon Ranch Corp.

Silicon Ranch will in turn develop, own and operate the six projects, totaling 434 megawatts, that will help power Facebook’s data center in Newton County. The solar developer said it has invested more than $1 billion in rural communities in Georgia, making it the largest taxpayer in multiple jurisdictions.

“We are committed to bringing renewable energy close to where we operate,” said Urvi Parekh, who leads Facebook’s renewable-energy team. Data centers like the one in Newton County represent more than 90% of the electricity that Facebook consumes, she added.

The bump in investment from the solar-power projects ends up having a significant impact on the local communities where the projects are sited, said Jeff Pratt, president of Green Power EMC, an entity that secures renewable resources on behalf of the state’s 41 electric cooperatives. Those EMCs serve roughly 4.4 million of the state’s 10 million residents in mostly rural areas, which encompass some of the poorest counties in the country.

But, while solar projects can add jobs, a lot of the new employment growth can be temporary, with opportunities petering out after construction is completed, said John Howard, mayor of Monroe in Walton County. Coal power plants take twice as many workers to generate a megawatt hour of electricity as do solar farms, according to estimates from BW Research Partnership, an economic and workforce consulting firm.

The projects can be unpopular with farmers, since plots of agricultural land usually need to be cleared for the installation of solar panels.

“You’ll find that in a rural, farming community, folks don’t like seeing that farmland being taken away and used for anything other than what they think it should be intended for,” Mr. Howard said.

Integrating the solar projects with agricultural practices has helped ease some of those concerns, said Matt Beasley, Silicon Ranch’s chief commercial officer. On several projects, the solar developer partners with local farmers to move in flocks of sheep and cattle to naturally fertilize the land and graze on the grass, which prevents erosion and manages the length of the grasses so they don’t block the panels.

Mr. Beasley has started to see the growth of solar power changing the politics of renewable energy in the state. People are beginning to associate solar plants with energy resiliency, job creation and economic growth without much disturbance to the rural landscape, he said.

Solar power has also gained the support of conservative coalitions such as the Conservatives for Clean Energy Georgia and the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, which are also advocating for the expansion of rooftop solar in the state.

“The pendulum is swinging back, and climate change is starting to become a part of the discussion now,” Mr. Beasley said. “The economics are such that you can have your cake and eat it too.”