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Posted: January 7, 2014 10:30 a.m.

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State's largest solar farm in Social Circle

Former family farm has 125 acres of panels

Georgia’s largest solar farm can sneak up on even a suspecting first-time passerby, as long country roads lined with rural homes and large pastures suddenly give way to a raised field full of row after row of gleaming (on a sunny day, of course) solar panels.

Simon Solar Farm began producing electricity and selling it to Georgia Power around mid-December, ahead of the original schedule for an $85 million project that built more than 100,000 solar panels on 125 acres of what used to be the family farm of Simon Solar owner Steve Ivey.

Located on land at the intersection of Hawkins Academy and Social Circle Fairplay roads, east of Social Circle, the sprawling solar farm is the first of many large-scale solar farms in the planning or development stages around the state.

Simon Solar Farm will produce up to 30 megawatts (MW) of power, which will be sold to Georgia Power under a 20-year purchase agreement (which Georgia Power said is proprietary for competitive reasons). Ivey said the farm’s full capacity can power about 7,000 homes, while a day without optimal sun can still power around 4,000 homes.

Because Georgia Power sells electricity at the same price all around the state, the new solar farm won’t affect area residents’ prices, but advocates say the expansion of solar power will lead to an increasingly less expensive form of electricity as technology continues to improve, with the immediate benefits of diversifying the power portfolio with a cleaner, renewable source.

Solar in its infancy

Georgia Power has approximately 100 MW of solar-generated electricity capacity installed now, said spokesman Brian Green, a number that is scheduled to grow rapidly to nearly 800 MW of solar power by 2017. The company had only 11 MW of solar capacity at the beginning of 2013, Green said.

Even with the increase, solar power will only comprise a fraction of Georgia Power’s total capacity, which totals 45,740 MW, according to its website, including 36 percent coal, 45 percent oil and gas, 17 percent nuclear, and 2 percent hydro (a portfolio that will change with the decommissioning of multiple coal plants and the addition of two nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle, as well as solar’s growth and forays into biomass).

"This agreement with Simon Solar Farm is an exciting milestone as we continue to add cost-effective solar capacity to our generation portfolio. It’s also a great example of the growth of solar capacity in Georgia — our state has one of the fastest-growing and competitive solar markets in the nation, developed without a renewable mandate and no additional cost to customers," Green said in an email.

A 2010 study by an Arizona State University law professor rated Georgia No. 5 in the nation in terms of states that would benefit from developing and using solar power, and advocates are hoping the projects coming online will lead to even more investment moving forward.

Lauren "Bubba" McDonald, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission (which regulates Georgia Power) and one of the state’s foremost solar proponents, said the cost of solar power continues to drop and the solar farms being built now are even less expensive than Simon Solar Farm.

While other sources of electricity, like natural gas and oil, have uncertain futures, the price of the sun’s energy isn’t changing anytime soon.

"The sun’s energy is free, and it will be free six months from now and six years from now," McDonald said Tuesday. "The cost of panels has gone down, and the technology for delivering power from solar panels (has improved); we have developed a perfect storm to develop solar in our state."

Cities that sell electricity, like Covington, Oxford and Mansfield, and electric membership cooperatives (EMCs), like Snapping Shoals EMC, are not on the same solar power expansion plan as Georgia Power but can and do reach their own solar power agreements.

A new type of farm

Ivey spent a decade researching potential uses for his family’s former cotton farm before settling on solar panels. Ivey’s grandfather, Robert Simons, purchased the land 1935 and farmed it along with other families until 1950; it’s been used sparingly for hunting and camping in the decades since.

Ideas of reviving the cotton were dismissed, along with thoughts of a chicken operation and even a golf course, before Ivey’s research into solar panels in an effort to more efficiently heat his pool led him to a solar farm. An existing Georgia Power substation on site and ready to be tapped into, also helped facilitate the idea. He tackled several hurdles, including cost, as he had to front the initial investment (Ivey owns IMI Music in Nashville), and Walton County’s ordinances, which had no provision for such a use; he literally wrote much of the ordinance for not only a solar farm, but also for residents and businesses to be able to use solar panels.

One of the benefits of solar panels is that they retain 97 percent of their effectiveness after 25 years, Ivey said, making them inexpensive to maintain. Simon Solar Farm doesn’t have any other buildings on site and doesn’t require any in-person supervision but can be monitored remotely and uses a perimeter fence and security system to protect the panels.

Future plans

Education was one the biggest hurdles Ivey faced in getting his solar farm up and running — he went door-to-door to all of his neighbors — and it’s something he wants to continue to do. He’s hoping to set up a location, maybe in Social Circle, where students and adults can see and touch a solar panel and learn how it works and follow that up with a tour of the solar farm.

As far as business plans, Ivey still has 100 unused acres of property next to the solar farm. He’s going to wait before diving into another venture, but inspiration can strike in a second and the future looks bright.

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