By REID HEARD
Sawnee Electric Membership Corporation is making use of solar power facilities for the first time to provide its 140,000 members with a reliable source of sustainable energy.
Blake House, vice president of member services, said Sawnee EMC is preparing to supplement a portion of its conventional energy sources with output purchased last year from two solar farms in southern Georgia.
“You couldn’t do it here. Land is too expensive,” he said. “If you’ve got a farmer down there who has some land he can’t use, maybe it’s a river bed, something like this makes perfect sense.”
The EMC acquired 50 percent of the total energy output of a 20-megawatt facility located in Hazlehurst last summer, which will be the second largest in the state. Last December it announced a purchase agreement with a second 100-megawatt facility in Taylor County for 15 percent. Both sites will house a combined 1.7 million ground-mounted solar panels that will supply thousands of homes with electricity.
House added that both facilities are under construction, Hazlehurst is expected to become operational this summer while the Taylor County location will follow in the summer of 2016.
These agreements, which were announced within six months, are the first of their kind in the EMCs 76-year history.
“Solar has finally turned the corner to where it’s economically feasible in certain situations and utilities are taking advantage of that. Historically we wouldn’t have because it would have been a waste of money,” House said.
The EMC’s price is fixed for 20 years, lending security and cost stability to the deal. House highlighted the advantage of solar energy produced and sold within the state at a fixed price over volatile commodities such as coal and natural gas.
As for the impact on rates, House said there would be no change resulting from these projects.
“For the last 10 years we could’ve been using solar for political reasons, PR reasons, environmental pressure and a number of other reasons,” he said. “We didn’t do it because we would’ve had to answer to our members. We would never do it unless it made economic sense.”
House said feedback from the members has been favorable. Charles Garcia is among those members pleased with the EMCs commitment to provide affordable and sustainable energy.
“When companies like Sawnee continue to report steady growth after embracing alternative energy, it will likely cue competitors to follow the market trend and turn to those options,” Garcia said. “These days the most successful companies are those that can change with shifting needs and offer their customers innovative technology for a competitive price. We’ve seen this in the automobile industry with the recent rise of electric vehicles. This is the energy sector’s adaptation of that.”
House said that since announcing these agreements last fall, Sawnee has been approached by other solar contractors with similar proposals. Metro Atlanta’s rapid growth will inevitably create the necessity for more power. House said the EMC is prepared to grow with the area and continue providing whatever sources remain most practical.
“We are constantly evaluating what is the best and most economical source of power for our members,” he said. “For us to pull the trigger on two projects like these shows that we’re looking at all our options, and that these are two very good options.”