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Presidential solar power

A new 1.3-MW solar project on farmland owned by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter solar power pioneer-is now providing 50 percent of the power needs of his home town of Plains, Georgia.

By Paul MacDonald

During construction of a solar project in Georgia, representatives of SolAmerica Energy were going over the plans with the landowner, in the back of a pickup truck. There was nothing unusual in that; it's a common procedure for the solar development and construction company—except that the landowner in this case was former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. It's not every day that you get to work with a former president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Earlier this year, SolAmerica had the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 1.3-MW project on a 10-acre site on the Carter farm. The project is now providing over 50 percent of the power needs of Plains, Georgia—President Carter's home town. In addition to having been a farmer of peanuts and soybeans, President Carter is now a solar farmer.

"Rosalynn and I are very pleased to be part of SolAmerica's exciting solar project in Plains," said President Carter, who was at the ceremony with his wife. He was president from 1977 to 1981 and is now an energetic 92-year-old.

"Distributed, clean energy generation is critical to meeting growing energy needs around the world while fighting the effects of climate change," he said. "I am encouraged by the tremendous progress that solar and other clean energy solutions have made in recent years and expect those trends to continue."

President Carter was an early pioneer in clean energy in the U.S. He created the Department of Energy and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and signed the Public Utility Regulatory Act (PURPA), all of which were catalysts for the advancement of renewable energy in the U.S. He was also the first president to put solar panels on the White House.

"We are honored to work with President Carter and his family on this project in Plains, as President Carter's leadership on renewable energy matters is well known and much appreciated in our industry," said SolAmerica executive vice president George Mori.

Through a 25-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Georgia Power, the project will help expand the growth of renewable energy assets in Georgia, while contributing to the overall economy of Plains, added Mori.

SolAmerica developed, engineered, and installed the single-axis tracker solar array on the Carter farm. Over the next 25 years, the system is projected to generate more than 55 million kilowatt hours of clean energy in Plains.

In an interview, Mori explained that he first approached President Carter through his nephew, attorney Jason Carter. "It was a simple concept: we thought it might be of interest to President Carter to have a solar farm located in Plains. Jason took it to President Carter, and we were thrilled when he said he would be interested in meeting with us."

In addition to his many other accomplishments, former President Jimmy Carter is now a solar farmer. 

At SolAmerica's first meeting with him, President Carter recalled the installation of solar panels on the White House nearly 40 years ago. Some 32 panels were installed on the roof of the White House. They were removed by President Ronald Reagan, when he took office in 1981. Today, one of those historical panels is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and there is one at the Carter Library in Atlanta.

"It's been very exciting for us to be involved in a project where President Carter can be active again with solar energy in a very personal way," said Mori.

"We worked with the staff of the farm, but President Carter was very active in working through the details of the solar ground lease we have on the project. And we kept him informed of our efforts to get the project developed.

"Once we were ready to break ground, we reviewed the design with him in detail, in regard to where the project was to be laid out on his property," said Mori.

Peter Corbett, senior vice president of engineering and construction for SolAmerica, noted that while President Carter now travels a great deal, when he was home in Plains, he often visited the site during construction (hence their reviewing the project's plans in the back of a pickup truck). "He was very interested in the project and was asking very detailed electrical questions." President Carter trained as a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy.

One weekend, construction workers were on the site, close to finishing the project. "President Carter got out there and helped them pull some feeder wire—he is excited about the project," says Corbett.

In terms of the construction details of the Carter solar project, Corbett said the site did not require much in the way of civil work because it is farmland. There were no environmental, geotechnical, or wildlife issues with the property.

The area, like other parts of Georgia, has been dealing with drought conditions in recent years. This made the work of driving the H piles for the racking system a bit tougher.

 SolAmerica Energy developed, engineered, and installed the single-axis tracker solar array on the Carter farm. Over the next 25 years, the system is projected to generate more than 55 million kilowatt hours of clean energy in Plains, Georgia.

"The ground in this part of Georgia has been dry for so very long—but we were able to make it work with a few more hammer blows with the pile drivers," said Corbett.

Solar FlexRack racking was used on the project, and there were 3,852 Hanwha solar panels. CPS inverters were used on the project, and the monitoring system is by Locus Energy.

Logistically, there was some open land to the south of the site, so there was a good amount of laydown space for all the components.

Corbett explained that they work with Tier 1 suppliers and have a regular group of contractors that they call on. "At SolAmerica, we always manage the projects as the EPC, but we partner with top tier electrical companies and use racking crews with expertise in the type of racking we are using." The electrical contractor on the Carter solar project was MB Haynes, which is based in North Carolina.

The Carter project, with its 1.3-MW size, is comparable in size to many other solar projects SolAmerica has done.

"That's about the average size of our projects, to date," said Mori. "A core piece of our business is building projects in this size range—we're not an EPC that works on large-scale utility projects. But we do have a lot of expertise as a developer and EPC on distributed solar projects of this size, connected to distribution lines."

Mori and the senior executives at SolAmerica believe it is helpful—and a good business model-to be both the developer and EPC on a solar project.

"We believe that having both of those skillsets in-house brings value to our efforts from the standpoint of understanding the full spectrum of the process, from the origination of the sites and due diligence on the sites from the development side, all the way through interconnection with the utility." In the case of the Carter project, the interconnecting utility was Georgia Power.

"Rosalynn and I are very pleased to be part of SolAmerica's exciting solar project in Plains," said former President Jimmy Carter, who was at the opening ceremony of the Georgia solar project with his wife. Mr. Carter was president from 1977 to 1981 and is now an energetic 92-year-old. 

"We've seen examples of where a developer might not have that EPC component, and there might be a miss when they are envisioning a project for development—and they don't really understand the aspects of the construction side."

Essentially, it helps to be wearing both a developer hat and an EPC hat on projects.

"You can see that sometimes with people who want a project located and built, that they might consult with an EPC—but if an EPC is not aware of the permitting aspects of a project, upfront environmental diligence, and the other aspects that go into having a site ready for construction, there might be some misses there," said Mori.

"We think there is a lot of value to having the development and EPC sides all under one roof."

While the checklist is actually quite lengthy to determine whether a solar project is a "go" for SolAmerica, Mori says there are three top factors. These would be:

  • Is the site physically acceptable; in terms of topography, can it accept the type of solar array envisioned?
  • What is the situation with the power and utility lines in the area—is it conducive to the site?
  • And certainly one of the most important aspects is how the project will be monetized; is there visibility to the buyer for the energy?

Once construction is underway, the priorities shift.

"For the construction side, the most important thing is our subs and suppliers," says Corbett. "My job is to prep the project as best I can, give the subs a good set of plans, and have our ducks in a row so material is delivered on time. And when a problem comes up, we're working on solving it together to meet our interconnection dates—not pointing fingers at each other.

"It's all about teamwork—I'm looking out for my vendors and suppliers, and they are looking out for me. That's how we work."

Mori noted that SolAmerica, which is based in Atlanta, has done numerous projects similar to the Carter solar project in Georgia—and there is still plenty of opportunity in the state.

"There remains a great deal of untapped potential in renewable energy in Georgia and elsewhere in the U.S.," he says. "We believe distributed solar projects like the Plains project will play a big role in fueling the energy needs of generations to come."

At the moment, it seems unclear exactly where the Trump Administration will come down in terms of renewable energy and government support for solar power.

But Mori agreed that the solar industry now has energy of its own.

"We do feel there is a lot of momentum in the solar industry," he says. "Corporations are looking more and more at renewables and how to incorporate renewable energy into their business operations. And there are utilities looking to diversify and create initiatives like that of Georgia Power, allowing for distributed solar power generation."

Add to that the interest of landowners, who see the opportunity for an additional income stream for their property, and local government, which can benefit from a larger tax base.

"We've been in business for almost eight years, and we've really enjoyed watching that momentum build—and we think it is going to continue. It's very exciting," says Mori.