Pecan farmer invests in solar energy

Photo by Barry Levine

Photo by Barry Levine

ALBANY -- Based out of Shamrock Ranch in Albany is an operation that some believe can function as an efficient way to meet the region's energy needs -- solar power.

Trey Pippin, an area pecan farm operator and the product of the University of Georgia's bioengineering program, now has a solar power farm running in Arlington.

Conceived and developed by Pippin, ESA Renewables of Florida engineered and constructed the 200-kilowatt project. The system covers one acre and was installed using 836 Suniva solar panels, PV Powered inverters, a Schletter's FS racking system and a Fat Spaniel monitoring system.

Pippin was motivated to take on the project by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"A representative told me about the funding available for solar projects," he recalled.

The development process started in June 2009, and was completed April 23. The biggest challenge throughout was trying to find lenders.

"(The credit market) is not good anyway, but with technology that's new it makes it difficult," Pippin said.

The system became fully operational on May 1. The system can generate more than 310,000 kilowatt-hours of energy annually, enough to avoid 223 tons of carbon dioxide emissions within the same time period.

Over 25 years, it's estimated that the farm will offset 12 million pounds of carbon dioxide.

"Renewable energy can help so that we are not so dependent (on other energy sources)," Pippin said, "We can't replace fossil fuels, but we can help supplement."

ESA, which specializes in providing turnkey solar photovoltaic projects, provided the materials necessary to make the project a solid reality -- which they did for the benefit of future generations.

"Solar is free energy that's completely clean and as abundant as sunlight," said Lindsay Herold, contract administrator with the company. "We have the technology and experience to harvest this richest energy source. We can use the power of the sun to make a clean, pollution-free world for us and future generations.

"Solar is the perfect renewable energy solution because there is no pollution generated and no green house gasses emitted -- just clean electricity. Using solar energy conserves our fossil fuels, reduces the amount of pollution in the atmosphere and reduces waste caused by coal burning from mining, transport and plant operations."

Presently, Georgia Power has a five-year purchase agreement with Pippin. The energy generated within the farm, once converted, goes into Georgia Power's grid for consumer use.

One of the main benefits of the project's completion for the long-term will be a victory in the quest for cutting energy costs.

Georgia Power is paying 18 cents per kWh for the solar power generated at the farm. After five years, the energy may eventually be used to help with the electricity costs generated from operating Pippin's facilities.

"I'd like to renew (the deal), but if not, we'll use it to offset energy use," he said.

Georgia Power's interest was an instrumental piece in making the project a reality, Pippin said.

"Without Georgia Power paying the premium, we wouldn't have been able to complete the project," he said.

The system works by the panels absorbing solar energy. After that, it is collected and converted into an alternating current. From there, it goes into the grid.

There is a monitoring system that tracks how much the panels collect throughout the day.

Pippin's undertaking is the largest on Georgia Power's grid. "This is actually a large partner for us," said Lynn Wallace, spokeswoman for Georgia Power. "It's one of the largest partnerships we have."

The business relationship between Pippin and Georgia Power came to life through the company's green energy program. Officials with the utility say solar energy does have some potential in the state, even if it's not to the same degree as in other parts of the country.

"The more solar power we get helps to drive down the cost of power in the state," Wallace said.

"I definitely think it will have a future. But we won't have as much solar energy as we do coal or nuclear. It's not as prevalent."

Georgia Power currently has plans to build up to 2.5 megawatts of solar capacity volume in the state. The Georgia Public Service Commission has approved of the company putting in mechanisms that, as people purchase more energy, the utility can purchase more solar power.

The company also has a request in to the Georgia Public Service Commission to build research solar projects throughout the state. "(The purpose of the projects) will be to learn how to produce the energy and procure it," Wallace explained.

Georgia Power is not allowed to buy back on an installation more than 100 kW, so Pippin's farm is divided into five segments. The first one is 100 kW, and the other four are 25 kW each.

Not much has been invested in Georgia on this concept thus far, and officials feel that will eventually change.

"In other states, there are a lot of people doing it," Pippin said. "As costs come down, we will definitely see it implemented more."

Generally, production peaks at 35 kWh during the middle of the day at the farm, and it decreases as it gets later into the day. "That's right where we expect it to be," Pippin said.

In the last several years there have been a number of methods used to help drive down solar energy costs, Wallace said.

"There are state and federal incentives for customers to put solar panels on their homes and businesses," she said.

The incentives should play a big part in the idea gaining momentum, officials say.

"Although the solar industry is still considered to be in its infancy, there have been rapid and significant technological advancements recently," Herold said. "These advancements play a large role in furthering the industry and its practices. As long as the trend toward alternative energy continues and the government advances solar initiatives and incentives, it's predicted that most, if not all, new buildings will have solar systems installed on roofs.

"The incentives (rebates, investment tax credits, exemptions, etc.) are really what drives the solar industry and deems these projects to be financially doable. As these advance, you'll see solar becoming a lot more common."