Solar Minimal in Mississippi, for Now
By Will Corley
It’s there when we wake up. It gives life to everything around us. The Sun has, for millennia, been viewed as a symbol of power — and its light is increasingly generating just that.
As a clean alternative energy source, solar is now powering the equivalent of 12 million American homes according to the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. In Mississippi, its promise is being explored by mega-companies that not too long ago did not see solar power as a viable alternative. Individual customers also have a new incentive to add solar.
Michael Connell is the director of project development for Radiance Solar, based in Atlanta, that has partnered with a multinational energy company to develop large-scale solar farms across the southeast United States. “Clean” means solar plants use no coal, oil or gas (fossil fuels) to fire their generators. Like nuclear plants, they emit no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and it’s an excess of carbon dioxide that is said to drive climate change.
“Land in Mississippi is just as good as that in Georgia,” says Connell, “It’s bright and sunny, which is perfect for solar power.” Radiance Solar is not the only company to take advantage of the state’s bright and sunny climate.
At the end of 2019, there were 351 installations in Mississippi, producing enough energy to power over 27,000 homes according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Mississippi Power, a Georgia-based investor-owned utility serves most of Southeast Mississippi from six plants where generators are powered by natural gas. In 2017, the company debuted solar plants in Meridian, Hattiesburg and its largest, in Lamar County. With 215,000 solar panels stretching across 595 acres, the Lamar County plant was unlike any other in the state at the time of its unveiling. The company has a fourth plant in the works to be located near the Gulf Coast.
Entergy Mississippi, also a large investor-owned utility, has also demonstrated its “commitment to a diverse energy portfolio.” The New Orleans-based company added small solar stations in DeSoto, Hinds and Lincoln counties in 2019. Entergy, which serves the west half of the state from its gas-fire and the state’s only nuclear plant at Grand Gulf, plans a 100-megawatt station, perhaps appropriately in Sunflower county, to go on the grid in 2021.
“These solar projects provide crucial data in determining the economics and feasibility of solar generation in Mississippi,” the company said in a news release. “Entergy Mississippi is committed to delivering the cleanest, most affordable energy to its customers.”
Despite the developments of recent years, however, solar power only accounts for one-half of 1 percent of Mississippi’s electricity needs.
Connell believes that utility companies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which serves the northeast region of the state, will continue to develop larger-scale solar plants within their reach in an effort to expand their alternative energy sources.
Interestingly, the driver seems to be costs more than sustainability and the environment. Connell said power costs in the southeast United States are relatively low, so development has been increasing as the cost of technology drops. As solar plants develop increasingly across the country, Bryan Jacob, solar program director for the Southeast Alliance for Clean Energy, believes there is “significant opportunity” for Mississippi to become more reliant on solar power in the future. “The cost of solar energy of all sizes has dropped dramatically over the last decade, and, of course, it’s a zero-emission, renewable energy resource,” Jacob said.
“The state of Mississippi has just adopted an Integrated Resources Planning (IRP) process. Examining the future in this holistic way, and with constructive engagement from stakeholder constituents, will result in better planning and likely more renewable energy resources.”
The Mississippi Public Service Commission, which regulates non-municipal utility companies operating in the state, has also recently approved “net metering.” What that means is that users, from individual homes to large industrial plants, can receive credit on their power bills when their privately owned solar panels provide so much power that the excess goes is added to the power company grid.
“It can only go up,” Connell said about solar power development in Mississippi.