Two doctors made energy history last week in a dusty field in Bulloch County when they hooked up their solar farm to the electric grid.
The pole-mounted arrays of solar panels, 24 of them so far, are a rare sight here, but they aren't novel in themselves. The technology has been available for decades.
No, what's new is that Savannah dermatologist Sidney Smith and Brunswick pathologist Pat Godbey figured out a way to put a lot of solar in one place and still sell it back to Georgia Power at the premium green energy rate.
State regulations require the utility to limit its purchases of solar energy at premium pricing to commercial systems of 100-kilowatt capacity or smaller. Smith and Godbey will own a chunk of the farm with that generating capacity but then will continue to expand the solar capacity by leasing new portions to other companies.
At buildout, the farm will have a generating capacity of 1.2 megawatts, or 12 times the individual limit.
"It is kind of a different business model," said Wilson Mallard, green energy manager for Georgia Power. "They're selling ownership in it."
Georgia Power's green energy program is set up to be revenue-neutral and not increase prices for customers who don't participate, Mallard said. The Public Service Commission allows Georgia Power to buy only as much premium-priced solar (at 18.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, soon to go down to 17 cents) as it can sell for premium prices.
"As more customers support green energy it automatically increases the amount we can buy," he said. Georgia Power's premium green energy, which will soon be 50 percent solar-produced, costs consumers $5 extra per 100 kilowatt hours.
About 60 producers sell solar energy to Georgia Power at the premium rate, Mallard said, though there's a waiting list for others eager to join them. In the meantime, Georgia Power buys that solar energy at about 5 cents per kilowatt hour.
The doctors, who spent eight months negotiating with Georgia Power to set up the deal, had to pay for the connecting infrastructure themselves, including a transformer. They expect to install more than 100 pole-mounted arrays on the first 1.25 acres for their own company, Tabby Power. Then they'll start leasing the remaining acreage, perhaps to companies that want renewable energy but don't have the land or roof for it, or don't want to risk hurricane damage to expensive solar panels, Smith said.
"Basically the company can make one phone call and within a month be generating power," Smith said. "All the technical aspects are taken out."
It takes between five and six of the pole-mounted arrays to power the average Georgia house.
Georgia and Georgia Power both gets poor marks on solar development from most environmentalists. Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia points to less sunny states that have outstripped Georgia's pace on solar.
"There are states where solar is taking off, like New Jersey," she said. "They're installing hundreds of megawatts. It's a combination of state leadership pushing solar and the utility not willing to stand in the way."
Still, she applauded the new solar farm.
"I think that every little step you can take with these guys is a good one," she said.
THIRD SOLAR FIRST
Solar is nothing new to Smith.
His Tybee home was the first Georgia residence to hook to the grid. His southside Savannah office was the first commercial building to do so.
He's sold on solar as an investment, confident that the energy produced is only going to get more valuable and that nobody will be taxing his use of sunshine.
"It's a business plan; you can make money doing this," he said. "What else can you install today that will keep paying benefits?"
With the state and federal tax credits he's been able to tap into, he expects to recoup his investment in about 15 years.
Keith Freeman, the vice president and chief technical officer of OneWorld Sustainable, oversaw the installation of the solar farm. He said commercial ventures were recouping their investments in less than ten years.
Smith and Godbey envision their site a few miles off Interstate 16 as a modern bucolic scene: cattle grazing and bees buzzing beneath south-facing panels that soak up the sun.
"Ultimately this will be a pasture," said Smith, who gestured to white boxes at the edge of the field. "Those right there are beehives."
"It's the right thing to do," Godbey said. "It's better than polluting."