OXFORD — Among Mississippi’s abundant blessings — and the state is abundantly blessed — is sunshine.
The Magnolia State has great soil, lush forests, abundant wildlife and delicious fresh food from gardens, lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.
Plentiful water is another natural asset, though there is reason to be prudent lest we find ourselves like California or other places where scarcity is very real.
In terms of man-made resources, Mississippi has a variety of power-producing generators fired by nuclear or fossil fuels. There’s very little wind or hydropower, but last week a corner was turned on solar.
Entergy Mississippi, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, broke ground, at least figuratively, on $4.5 million worth of technology designed to tap the radiant energy of the sun and transform it to “juice” for demonstration projects in Jackson, Senatobia and Brookhaven.
A tiny step?
To be sure.
Entergy says at full bore the projects will produce power equivalent to supply the electricity needs of a mere 175 homes (one medium-sized neighborhood).
But it is a step toward diversification of supply. That will become more and more important in years and decades to come.
“We get questions all the time about solar power, and the honest answer is without a project like this we just don’t know how efficient it will be, how commercial it will be or how feasible it will be,” said Entergy Mississippi CEO Haley Fisackerly. “These projects will answer a lot of questions for us, and will give our customers access to renewable energy.”
Methods of tapping solar energy continue to evolve and improve. Prices are dropping, too. The systems to be installed by Entergy will not be the type sometimes nailed to rooftops. The 3,744 individual panels will track the sun across the sky.
About the same time Entergy was making its announcement, the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which has been discussing solar for several years, actually initiated a process essential to increasing business and residential solar installations.
The regulation of public utilities is almost as complex (and mysterious) as the science of how electricity works. In a nutshell, the PSC grants private firms regional monopolies in exchange for external controls imposed by the three elected commissioners.
A person who wants to buy electricity in an Entergy service area, for example, can’t shop around. It’s “buy from Entergy,” “do without” or “make your own.”
“Make your own” numbers are very low. A few years ago, Entergy Mississippi reported six (of 422,000) customers with connected solar arrays. Mississippi Power had one. TVA-supplied utilities likely had more, but while other states were stampeding to the sun, it just wasn’t happening here.
Part of the reason is technology, but the largest impediment has been regulatory.
That’s where a breakthrough occurred with the PSC. The members rolled out for public comment a set of proposed regulations that could improve and perhaps simplify “net metering” and “interconnection.”
Most existing private solar installations are connected to the grid. The power they make goes onto the grid for anyone to use. The owners get credits for whatever they chip in. It sounds a lot simpler than it is.
“Net metering” has nothing to do with the Internet. It “individualizes” electricity bills. Customers who supply all or part of their own power are billed for the difference. Further, if customers make more power than they consume, the utility “certificated” to sell them electricity must buy it from them.
None of this is really new. Other states have had this process in place for several years. It sounds like a potential bonanza: Cattle farmer sells off the herd, installs solar panels and sits on the porch waiting for monthly checks. It hasn’t exactly worked that way in other places, and it won’t in Mississippi.
Energy producers have billions invested in their plants and distribution systems. Some of them also have stockholders expecting healthy dividends. Major wrangling is ahead on the financial details. But the PSC is looking down the road. “I am bound and determined that the PSC be active, alert and on the lookout for ways to help Mississippians save money,” said Commissioner Brandon Presley, who represents the Northern District.
So a round of applause.
Not many Mississippians have the time or, uh, energy, to pore over the proposed rules (www.psc.state.ms.us) or to try to understand them in copious detail. Still, comments, even if just a general “way to go, guys,” are welcome and requested by July 1.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.