Here comes the sun power

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“When I got elected eight years ago, you couldn’t find a solar project with a SWAT team or a search warrant,” says Brandon Presley, chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission. “Now, we just did the announcement in Houston, and we’ve got other things that are on tap.”

The announcement was the public preview of a solar farm that began construction earlier this year about two miles north of downtown Houston in Chickasaw County. The farm was in its final testing phase last month, according to its Nashville-based solar energy plant operator, Silicon Ranch Corporation.

The project will generate 3.9 megawatts and help power more than 400 local homes and businesses through the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There’s more evidence the sun is shining on the solar industry in this state: Three Entergy Mississippi solar projects came online in June. The projects, which the energy company touts as the state’s first-ever utility-owned solar venture, are located in Lincoln, Hinds and DeSoto counties. They are expected to generate 1,500 kilowatts and power the equivalant of about 175 homes annually.

In April, Mississippi Power Co. and Silicon Ranch Corporation broke ground on one of the state’s largest solar farm projects. The Hattiesburg facility, which is expected to open early next year, will generate 50 megawatts, enough electricity to power to about 6,500 homes. The farm will be on 450 acres and will contain more than 600,000 solar panels.

Mississippi Power also broke ground in May on a Sumrall facility that will eventually generate 52 megawatts, enough to power about 8,000 homes, and is partnering with the U.S. Navy and others on a 3- to 4-megawatt solar project at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport. The 23-acre site will have some 13,000 panels, enough electricity for 450 homes.

Meanwhile, South Mississippi Electric, a generation and transmission cooperative providing electricity to 11 distribution members, this year began operating four solar facilities in Greenwood, Kiln, Lucedale and Lyon. A fifth location is planned in Taylorsville.

Each of the solar sites produces 100 kilowatts or less, measures about a half acre and contains 378 panels, according to South Mississippi Electric.

Uptick in solar projects

The overwhelming majority of electricity generated in Mississippi still comes from natural gas. Mississippi ranks 47th nationally in installed solar capacity with 1.1 megawatts of solar energy — enough to power 110 homes — as of 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national nonprofit trade group.

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Mississippi residential and commercial solar installations did climb about 43 percent from 2014 to 2015. Mississippians installed 51 kilowatts in 2014 and 90 kilowatts in 2015, the association said. Alex Hobson, senior communications manager for the association, said 90 kilowatts can provide power for about 15-20 homes.

“Solar energy offers many benefits, and continual advancements in solar panel technology are increasing its efficiency and lowering the cost of production, making it a potentially cost-effective fuel source for our customers,” Entergy Mississippi spokesman Joey Lee said in an email. “In years past, solar just wasn’t an economical choice for anyone.”

Mississippi is an ideal place for solar projects because the state is in one of the sunniest parts of the country, says Jeff Cantin, president of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association. The only region that gets more sunlight is the desert Southwest, he says, but not as many communities are established there.

“We’re probably one of the best parts of the country where you’ve got a lot of sunlight and a lot of folks that need to use electricity,” Cantin says.

In Houston, the 3.9 megawatt solar farm and an adjacent 1-megawatt solar project, which is expected to be completed in early 2017, occupy an open field of about 21 acres.

The 26,000-plus solar panels will feed into the Tennessee Valley Authority transmission system through connections to a nearby Natchez Trace Electric Power Association power line.

The project is part of TVA’s Renewable Standard Offer program, created to promote cost-competitive renewable energy while serving as a recruitment tool for new industry.

TVA and other utility and solar companies hope this type of operation can be replicated around the state.

Opportunities arise; obstacles persist

Even though Mississippi is not at the point where solar power can light up the whole grid, more opportunities are arising for Mississippi homes, businesses and utility companies to take advantage of solar power thanks to lower material costs, incentives offered by the federal government and a relatively new state utility program.

Solar panel materials are getting cheaper. Hobson said residential photovoltaic, or solar, system prices have dropped from $6.65 per watt in 2010 to $3.53 per watt in 2015, while commercial photovoltaic system prices have dropped from $5.92 per watt in 2010 to $2.10 per watt in 2015.

“As the cost of solar continues to rapidly decrease, we’re seeing solar growth in every corner of the country,” Hobson said.

More than 26,000 solar panels near Houston will help power more than 400 local homes and businesses through Tennessee Valley Authority.

Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

More than 26,000 solar panels near Houston will help power more than 400 local homes and businesses through the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Federal tax credits enable home and business owners to take up to 30 percent off the price of their solar energy systems from their income taxes.

In fall 2015, Mississippi’s Public Service Commission adopted net metering, which allows homeowners and businesses who generate an excess of renewable electricity to sell what they don’t use to utility companies and have that credited to their accounts. However, the procedures that kick those rebates into gear have yet to be approved by the PSC.

While there are state tax exemptions for renewable energy-related manufacturing businesses in Mississippi, there are currently no state tax credits available to home or business owners who want to install solar panels on their own spaces.

That’s one of the primary reasons many homeowners are not switching to solar, says Patrick Sullivan, president of the Mississippi Energy Institute, a nonprofit association that advises legislators on energy-related economic development.

“It’s small but it’s growing,” Sullivan said of the solar market in Mississippi.

A 2013 Mississippi House bill that would have allowed refundable credit for the costs of purchasing and installing a solar electric energy system died in committee.

“You have to wrestle with the other budget issues in the state to get (tax credits) as a priority,” Cantin said.

Georgia and Louisiana could be examples for Mississippi through their variety of public programs that help support renewable energy, Cantin said.

By the end of the year, Hopson said, Georgia is expected to have 1,000 megawatts of solar come online and another 1,200 megawatts proposed in the coming years.

“Having neighboring states such as Georgia and Louisiana that have solar markets that grew finally made it pretty obvious that Mississippi was missing something,” Cantin said.

In the meantime, Lee said Entergy Mississippi this summer is monitoring their solar projects across the state, looking at location and weather among other factors to determine where and why solar is more or less effective.

“(These projects) will allow us to see which system works more effectively,” Lee said. “These are ongoing projects and there isn’t a start and stop date.”