November 6, 2017 Read More →

The Economic Case for Solar, Not the Climate-Change Case, Is Driving Its Uptake Across the Southern U.S.

InsideClimate News:

When Brandon Presley was elected to the Mississippi Public Service Commission in 2007, he said, he couldn’t have found a solar farm “with a SWAT team and a search warrant.”

A decade later, Mississippi is one of the fastest-growing solar markets in the United States, according to GTM Research. The state’s public service commission approved several solar projects this summer, and the state is expected to gain more than 700 megawatts of solar capacity over the next five years.

One of the its newest projects is a 52-megawatt solar farm near Hattiesburg. A partnership between Mississippi Power, the state’s largest utility, and Silicon Ranch, a solar energy company based in Nashville, Tennessee, the 450-acre solar farm will eventually power 6,500 homes.

“I think everybody wants to be more energy independent, and that’s part of the public buzz around the solar industry in our state,” Presley said.

Combined, the Southern states would equal the sixth-largest greenhouse gas-emitting country in the world, said Michael Vandenbergh, a law professor at Vanderbilt University. But that argument doesn’t resonate in many conservative areas. “People associate climate mitigation with big government, and that’s particularly true in the South,” he said.

What is resonating with utility companies like Mississippi Power and communities like Hattiesburg is the economic argument for cheaper solar power.

Despite the lack of renewable-energy-friendly policies and the reluctance from Republican-led state legislatures to address climate change, states across the South and Appalachiaregions that voted heavily for Donald Trumpare rapidly expanding their solar markets.

Most of that growth has come from utilities investing in large-scale solar projects, which have dropped in price by nearly 80 percent since 2010 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, making them more cost-competitive with coal and natural gas. There’s also a grassroots rooftop solar movement in coal-friendly communities, encouraged by cheap technology and a push for energy independence.

To get communities, investors and utilities on board, renewable energy companies like Silicon Ranch have focused on the economic benefits of clean energy, rather than climate science or environmental regulations.

“Climate change is never coming up in any development activity [conversations],” said Matt Beasley, chief marketing officer of Silicon Ranch. “It’s not a talking pointit’s always about economics.”

When Silicon Ranch was founded in 2011, the idea that a national solar energy company could survive and thrive in Nashville, while the rest of the industry was based in California and the Southwest, “was unimaginable,” Beasley said. But the young team focused its efforts in the sunny Southeast, states with plenty of solar power potential.

Since then, utilities around the country have closed an increasing number of aging coal-fired generators, and wind and solar have become the fastest-growing sources of electricity in the U.S. It’s partly due to tax credits for clean energy industries that Congress extended in 2015, which are supposed to phase out in the 2020s. Rural states also got help from an Obama-era Department of Agriculture program called the Rural Energy for America Program, which gave more than $280 million in funding for rural solar projects in 2015 and 2016.

More: 2 Reasons Solar Is Booming in Trump Country: Price and Energy Independence

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