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Solar project at Exit 14 making clear progress thanks to partnerships

It’s all coming together.

The first right-of-way solar project in the southeast is taking shape at LaGrange’s Exit 14, and the project is expected to begin providing power early next year. The roughly one-megawatt solar array has been made possible through major partnerships, with organizers hoping the installation will be the first of many throughout the country.

“Through the leadership of the Georgia PSC, Georgia Power is able to collaborate with a tremendous team of partners including The Ray, Georgia DOT, Electric Power Research Institute and others to continue our efforts in researching and demonstrating innovative solar technologies,” said Craig Bell, a Georgia Power spokesman. “We look forward to gaining valuable experience with this pilot project to demonstrate solar generation along the highway, which includes a pollinator-friendly ground cover intended to improve overall project performance and our environment by reducing erosion and supporting the local ecology.”

Planting wildflowers and other groundcovers that help butterflies and bees has become a growing trend for new solar installations. Studies from the Argonne National Laboratory indicate that in addition to helping pollinators, the plantings could save solar developers money over time. The pollinator-friendly ground cover is shown to cost less for mowing compared to grass, and because it absorbs less heat than gravel, the plants actually help keep the panels cool, which improves their efficiency. 

“They have actually received funding from the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI) to help support this work because of the potential national significance for use broadly across the region as pollinator habitats as a ground cover for solar site just because of the variety of benefits that it brings,” said Allie Kelly, executive director of The Ray. “It is one of the first pollinator friendly solar sites that Southern Company has attempted, and it is the very first one for Georgia Power, which is a subsidiary of a Southern Company. This is, of course, the first roadside solar for Georgia DOT.” 

Kelly said that Georgia is the third state in the country to make use of DOT right-of-way land for solar.

“This is our idea that we brought to the Georgia DOT and Georgia Power back in 2016, and it’s just our acknowledgement and recognition that there is a lot of real estate on the interstate system that is part of the interstate system, but it is not pavement,” Kelly said. “This is real estate that we are utilizing on the road sides as a safe zone for pulling off or a noise buffer. … That road type real estate is a financial burden on DOT because they have to maintain it.”

Georgia Power will be able to use the roughly four acres of GDOT right-of-way for 35 years through a license agreement, and in that time, GDOT will obtain several benefits.

“It is going to be lighting that exit,” said Lynn Westmoreland, GDOT board member and chairman for Conservatives for Clean Energy advisory board. “I think there are over 40 different LED lights that are going to be there. Georgia Power has got a 35-year license, and that includes maintaining part of the right-of-way. That takes some cost off of the state. Then, the lighting of those lights won’t cost us anything. It is a win-win for GDOT.”

Westmoreland said that the right-of-way is a good place for the solar panels because of the amount of sun the space gets, the straight forward property rights and the lighting near exits that the installation can provide.

“This is one of the good, conservative ways for good energy because it didn’t cost the state anything,” Westmoreland said. “It’s not costing the taxpayers anything, but yet, they are the ones who are getting the benefit of it.”

Construction on the project is expected to be complete early in 2020.

“As construction of the solar generation facility concludes, we look forward to phasing in the landscaping elements in early 2020, including the pollinator-friendly groundcover and sharing updates as that aspect of the project develops,” Bell said.

To learn more about Georgia Power’s solar programs, visit Georgiapower.com/company/energy-industry/energy-sources/solar-energy.html.