(CN) — When all 280,000 photovoltaic panels are powered up sometime in January, the Black Bear solar project outside of Montgomery, Alabama, will increase the state’s output of solar power by nearly 20%. Yet the state will still be among the least reliant upon renewable energy, in a region of the country that lags behind the rest in green energy investment.
The organizers of a dedication ceremony at the facility last week are hopeful Black Bear is a sign of things to come.
“The price is the key ingredient to a utility’s interest in this type of resource,” said Fred D. Clark Jr., president and CEO of the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority, which will purchase power from the Black Bear facility from the project’s developer, LightsourceBP, and resell it to customers in 11 member cities.
“Every megawatt hour this project produces is a megawatt hour of natural gas we’re not having to buy and at a time of volatile fuel prices, that is particularly important," Clark said. "We would have saved $12 million in annual fuel costs if [Black Bear] was online this year, but we’ve estimated a savings of some $3 million per year over the course of the 20-year agreement, so approximately $60 million.”
The 130-megawatt project, built on 800 acres, was financed with $100 million in private capital. Fully functional, it is expected to produce enough energy to power roughly 20,000 homes each year, while also reducing the amount of carbon emissions by about 173,000 tons annually. Lightsource claims the project provided as many 400 jobs during construction, will have an annual operating budget of around $2.4 million and will contribute as much as $7 million in property taxes over a period of 35 years.
“This project is a great example of how solar is a job engine for Americans,” Lightsource Americas CEO Kevin Smith said in a statement, noting the panels for the project were manufactured in Arizona, their foundation piles were made in Mississippi and their electronic light trackers were built in New Mexico.
“Black Bear Solar created hundreds of U.S. jobs across the supply chain, supporting domestic manufacturing and helping build long-term careers for our clean energy future," Smith said.
But if Alabama has a significant clean energy future, you’d be hard-pressed to find hard evidence of it today. The state currently ranks 31st for the megawatt hours it generates using solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Other southern states including Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia generate even less. On the other hand, Georgia ranks 7th and Florida ranks 3rd, behind California and Texas, for megawatt hours produced from solar energy.
While 14 coal-fired power plants in Alabama have been mothballed in recent years, their generating capacity has largely been supplanted by natural gas, trading one nonrenewable resource for another.
The state is even more stubborn when it comes to the adoption of small-scale rooftop solar initiatives, as its regulatory agency, the Alabama Public Service Commission, allows power companies to charge prohibitive "backup" fees to recoup lost profits on such systems.
Data from the Solar Energy Industries Association indicates that as of July, Alabama had only about 370 small-scale solar customers in total, compared to 8,483 in Georgia, 33,329 in North Carolina, and 28,311 in South Carolina.
According to a federal lawsuit filed last year, the backup fees are discriminatory in nature and “destroy the economics of private solar installations,” robbing potential users of expected savings and prolonging the payback period on their investments.
“These charges are the primary reason that private solar investment in Alabama Power's service territory, comprising most of Alabama, significantly lags that of other solar-rich states,” the complaint states.