In the span of less than 18 months, three 2,000-acre sites in the Golden Triangle — two in Lowndes County, another in West Point — are under contract for solar power production facilities. Another 2,000 acres adjacent to the Clay County project, along with another comparable site near the Industrial Park in Starkville, have been identified as possible solar facilities as well.
So how big are these facilities?
Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins didn’t answer immediately when asked the question. Instead, he swiveled in his office chair, tapped on his keyboard. Up popped a Google Earth image on his desktop.
“This is the steel plant,” he said, referring to the Steel Dynamics property at the Lowndes County Industrial Park. “This is everything out there, the steel mill and all the other businesses. It comes out to about 1,200 acres. That should give you an idea of how big these solar projects are.”
The three planned solar facilities are being built by Florida-based Origis Energy, which has contracted with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Together the three sites, which will begin to come online in successive years starting in the fall of 2022, will generate a combined 550 megawatts of energy along with another 300 megawatts in battery storage.
They represent capital investment of more than $500 million and will produce millions of dollars in tax revenue for West Point and Clay County (although the facility is located in Clay County, the city and county split tax revenue as part of an interlocal agreement), Lowndes County and the West Point-Clay and Lowndes County school districts.
What they won’t produce is permanent jobs, at least not in significant numbers.
“There will be 150 construction jobs, and that means hamburgers and hotel rooms and cigarettes and gasoline, which is good for the city sales tax revenue,” Higgins said. “That always goes up when you have construction. But after that, you’re talking maybe just a handful of permanent jobs. It’s not going to move the jobs needle.”
So, while the solar facilities check the “tax revenue” box, it misses the mark in the “job creation” category, which are the two primary missions of the LINK.
A two-way street
It is, then, a tradeoff.
But there are other potential tradeoffs that Higgins has been hearing talk about.
When companies such as Origis look for sites, two important factors are land and infrastructure, said Johan Vanhee, chief procurement officer for Origis.
“Is there sufficient transmission capability to avoid new transmission line construction?” Vanhee said. “Is there sufficient and cost-efficient land available?”
The answers to those questions in both Lowndes and Clay counties were a resounding yes. With six 161 kilovolt transmission lines in Lowndes County and the massive substation in Clay County, Origis found sites that would allow it to tie in to the transmission infrastructure at minimal cost.
What was originally intended to deliver power to industries in the two industrial park areas can now be used to deliver the power generated by the solar production facilities. What was once a one-way street now becomes a two-way street.
HIggins said that is a concern he’s been hearing about from LINK board members: Is too much of the electrical infrastructure being committed to solar facilities that aren’t big job creators?
“Another way to think of it as a pipe that’s flowing in both directions,” Higgins said. “What you have to be careful about is how much that pipe can hold.”
The other concern is the scale of the solar operations and the prudence in committing massive sites that, unlike manufacturing and industry, create few permanent jobs.
Initially, that was a concern shared by West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson.
“(The Origis facility) will occupy space that might normally be used for manufacturing,” Robinson said. “But this was a deal that won’t require an investment for local government and it will generate a lot of tax revenue, which is really important. To me, I realized that we still have some land outside our industrial part that we can use for manufacturing. I don’t think we would want to commit everything to solar and I don’t think Joe Max would, either.”
None of the land Origis has chosen is located on one of the LINK’s TVA-designated megasites, where local governments have invested heavily in infrastructure meant to recruit job-creating industries. Local governments have no infrastructure investments in any of the solar projects, although they have approved fee-in-lieu agreements that will allow Origis to pay one-third of the regular property tax rate for the first 10 years.
“This is a discussion we have been having internally for about a year-and-a-half,” Higgins said. “A board member asked, ‘Are we taking good arable land out of production?’ My answer was no. This is land we looked at for industrial development and we said we’re not going to use that. It’s not part of our portfolio.”
Higgins said he doesn’t anticipate working on many solar deals apart from those already in production or identified as possible sites.
“I think we’re getting pretty close to the limit there,” he said.
Complements, not competition
That doesn’t mean solar energy companies aren’t exploring potential sites on their own.
A Noxubee County landowner is among many who have received letters about potential lease/purchase of land there.
“A lot of landowners have been approached,” said Janelle Good of Phillip Good Realty in Macon. “I don’t think anybody has bitten yet. The big thing here right now is land for row crops, especially cotton.”
Higgins said solar companies are aggressively looking for sites everywhere.
“There are other companies beside Origis looking at sites here in Lowndes County,” he said. “We’ve heard from solar companies who are interested in our family land in Arkansas.”
That trend will only continue, Higgins said.
“You look at these solar projects and you see where it’s going,” Higgins said. “Years ago, you see these small facilities, including the first one we got here in Lowndes County. It’s 1.6 megawatts. Now you’re seeing much bigger projects, 100 megawatts, 150 megawatts, and bigger.”
In his view, the arrival of solar facilities are best viewed as complements to manufacturing and industry rather than competition.
“One of the things we talked to Origis about back when they first announced their first project in Lowndes County was the possibilities in Starkville and Clay County,” Higgins said. “At the time we were working on deals with hyper-data companies like Facebook and Amazon. Those companies love green energy. So when Origis came in, I thought, ‘This could play into what we’re doing. I kinda like this.’ That’s when I told them about Oktibbeha County and Clay County.”
Although Higgins won’t rule out working future solar deals, the focus is on job creation.
The LINK’s five-year plan targets creating 1,500 jobs paying more than $40,000, an average of 300 per year.
“We’re definitely looking to create high-paying jobs that raise the standard of living in our community and that’s something that solar doesn’t bring to the table,” Higgins said. “Solar adds something, but it’s just a piece of what we do. I don’t think it takes away anything from our main goal.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]