Solar

Seven Communities Waiting for the Sun in Southeastern U.S.

Despite its abundant sunshine and vast open spaces, the Southeastern United States has not been much of a player in the solar energy industry’s global surge.

National Solar Power is looking to change that by building a solar farm five times bigger than any current installation, and they’re doing so in an area where solar has struggled to take root.

The Florida-based company has narrowed its search to build a 400 MW solar farm down to seven communities in three Southeast states — four in Florida, two in Georgia and one in North Carolina.

The Southeast has some of the nation’s lowest electricity rates, and two of the three finalists don’t have a Renewable Portfolio Standard — a government requirement that a certain percentage of the electricity must come from renewable energy sources. All but 17 states in the U.S. have an RPS, but the Southeast as a region has been hesitant to adopt these standards. Of the seven states that typically comprise the Southeast, only one — North Carolina — has adopted an RPS.

Despite the lack of policy support, the company is banking on the lure of jobs to be a driving force as seven communities work to bring the project into their backyard.

The communities selected by National Solar Power as finalists to become the location of the development are Gadsden, Hardee, Osceola and Suwannee counties in Florida, Sumter and Tatnall counties in Georgia and Guilford County in North Carolina.

The project will be a network of 20 solar farms, each of which will span 200 acres and generate 20 MW. It would be much larger than the 80 MW solar power plant in Ontario, Canada, currently the world’s largest. There are, however, other projects in the works worldwide that are expected to exceed the capacity of the plant planned by National Solar Power, including the first phase of a 1,000 MW plant that just broke ground in Blythe, Calif.

National Solar Power says its project could create 400 jobs during its five-year construction phase and up to 120 additional permanent jobs. Once an agreement is in place, the company will begin construction plans, and the first phase could be completed within six months from the start of construction. It remains unclear how long it would take between a site selection and the start of construction.

Each of the 20 farm segments represents a $70 million investment, according to the company, and over the construction, it says it will be a nearly $1.5 billion investment in one of the seven communities.

Before any of this gets done, it has to pass some hurdles, both in finding a site, obtaining appropriate permitting and in building community, political and business support.