Ga. biz leaders, farmers, conservative pols have solar on their minds

 

Birdsong Peanuts recently invested in this 1 MW solar array at its shelling and drying facility in Colquitt, Georgia. (Hannah Solar Photo)

Birdsong Peanuts recently invested in this 1 MW solar array at its shelling and drying facility in Colquitt, Georgia. (Hannah Solar Photo)

By Peter Voskamp

Peter Marte founded Atlanta-based Hannah Solar in 2007. Within two years, he had five employees.

Meanwhile, the solar power industry barely registered on Georgia’s business landscape. In the entire state, only 500 kilowatts of solar capacity was installed.

“The market did not exist,” Marte said.

But over the next six years, Hannah Solar became of one the fastest-growing renewable energy companies in the nation.

The company now has 77 employees, and in 2014 it was the 13th-fastest growing company in the metro Atlanta area. In 2014, the White House recognized Marte and nine other solar entrepreneurs as “Champions of Change.” In August 2015, Hannah Solar was named the 18th-largest commercial solar contractor in the nation.

Since its beginnings, Hannah has installed 75 megawatts of solar capacity, and is set to install another 20 megawatts, primarily in Georgia, North Carolina and Mississippi.

And Georgia has become one of the fastest-growing solar states in the nation, overseen by an all-Republican Public Service Commission.

Georgia farmers, lawmakers eye solar opportunities

Six years ago, nearly 60 percent of the electricity provided by Georgia Power, the state’s primary energy supplier, came from coal. That number is now closer to 30 percent. While much of the decline is due to the low price and ubiquity of natural gas, there has also been a shift toward renewables.

Also in 2009, Georgia Power was statutorily obliged to purchase only a half-megawatt of renewable energy. The company is now committed to purchasing 1,000 megawatts — one gigawatt — of renewably sourced energy over the next three years. At approximately $2 a watt, that’s a $2 billion investment. This is due in large part to the decrease in cost for renewable sources.

Marte credits state and federal policies for the role they have played in getting the industry up on its feet. They “spawned an industry,” he said.

When Hannah started, solar installation cost approximately $10 a watt. Now, it’s between $1.75 and $3.50 per watt depending on the type of project — commercial, residential, or farm.

The 30-percent federal tax credit for solar remains a big part of the equation. While the industry is now “a wobbly toddler,” Marte said that the tax incentives will be needed for a few more years in order for the industry to “walk on its own.”

Marte points out that all forms of energy production in the U.S. enjoy some form of government incentive.

Currently, the sun is scheduled to set on the solar Investment Tax Credit in 2016 — going from 30 percent down to 10 percent — and the solar industry is working to convince Congress to extend the credit.

Marte said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) will be a key part of that effort.

Not knowing the future tax landscape is debilitating when attempting to move an industry forward. “So difficult to conduct business like that,” Marte said.

A marked drop in the cost of solar panels has been a welcome but only recent phenomenon, Marte explained, and having the tax credits in place for a few more years would help companies take advantage of that drop in costs.

In Georgia, peanut and cotton farmers have discovered and taken advantage of the tax credits — $300,000 on a $1 million investment — that come with installing renewable energy capacity.

Two years ago, Hannah Solar installed a 1-megawatt solar array for Birdsong Peanut Co. in Colquitt, Georgia. Not only does Birdsong get the tax credit to offset income from its larger enterprise, but it will sell 100 percent of the electricity to Georgia Power for the next two decades.

Marte said he knows of two 1,000-acre farms in Georgia that are planning to install 100-megawatt and 130-megawatt solar farms respectively.

Military solar projects

Hannah is also expanding its reach, installing solar arrays at military facilities through its sister company, Hannah Solar Government Services. There are three projects underway in Puerto Rico — at the San Juan VA hospital, Fort Allen and Fort Buchanan. Another project is set for Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

One project Marte is particularly excited about is the new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons football team, which will be the first LEED Platinum-certified stadium in the country, and will include more than a megawatt of on-site solar.

Marte applauds the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently finalized Clean Power Plan, saying it is “long overdue” and “very important to our industry.”

When it comes to generating the energy we need to go about our daily lives, Marte said burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas don’t stack up when compared to solar.

“There are better ways to do it,” he said.

Peter Voskamp can be reached at info@cleanenergyworksforus.org.