Mississippi and Alabama approve utility-scale solar projects

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The Deep South has long lagged behind other regions in the United States in the development of solar markets. Even while neighboring states such as North Carolina, Texas and Florida built large solar projects, for years the former cotton states of South Carolina west to Louisiana had extremely limited solar deployment.

This began to change with Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power, which acquiesced to the purchase of 50 MW of solar PV in 2010. Under pressure by a pro-solar majority of state regulators, the utility expanded this multiple times and is now planning to build 900 MW by the end of 2016.

A tide of solar deployment is now sweeping the region. In September Alabama regulators approved a plan by fellow Southern Company subsidiary Alabama Power to procure up to 500 MW of renewable energy, most of which is expected to be solar.

Yesterday this trend continued, with Alabama regulators approving 21 MW of solar projects and Mississippi regulators approving Southern Company subsidiary Mississippi Power’s plans for four solar projects totaling 105 MW.

Developers including North Carolina’s Strata Solar and Origis Energy will finance and build the projects in Mississippi, which will be located in Hattiesburg, Sumrall and on a U.S. Navy Base in Gulfport. Construction of all three plants is planned for early 2016, and Mississippi Power will buy the electricity generated under long-term power purchase agreements.

The Alabama Public Service Commission has given Alabama Power permission two build two solar PV plants, each 10.6 MW in capacity, at U.S. military facilities. These will be the first two utility-scale projects in the state, and Strata Solar will provide engineering, procurement and construction services for these projects as well.

One of the advantages of the projects cited by Mississippi Power and Alabama Power is helping to keep electricity rates low. The Deep South has the lowest retail electricity rates in the nation, however heavy use of air conditioning creates high peak demand during the hot summer months, a portion of which can be met by solar.

Additionally, long-term fixed-price solar contracts can serve as a hedge to fluctuations in natural gas prices, which is of particular concern to large commercial and industrial users for whom electricity is a major expense and a factor in business operations.

Mississippi is one of the few states in the Deep South to host solar manufacturing. Thin film CIGS maker Stion operates a factory in Hattiesburg, and in September China’s Seraphim Solar announced that it would open its PV cell factory in Jackson by the end of November.