Massive new utility-scale solar farm projects are poised to dramatically expand Alabama’s solar power capacity as major technology companies make their first significant investments in the state.
In the last three months alone, the Tennessee Valley Authority has announced plans for large solar installations in North Alabama tied to data centers being constructed by Google in Jackson County and Facebook in Huntsville.
The new projects build on solar capacity in Alabama that only recently came on line.
Alabama Power and its partners developed a $140 million solar installation in Chambers County that opened in late 2017 and is providing renewable energy for retailer Walmart’s ambitious sustainability plan.
Alabama Power has also helped military bases in the state by installing solar projects to help them meet their goals. Alabama Power is using all the energy from the military projects and a portion from the Chambers County project to support its renewable programs.
In the latest projects, TVA is teaming with developer First Solar to build what will be Alabama’s largest solar farm in Colbert County, serving Facebook. With an output of 227 megawatts, this project alone will almost double Alabama’s installed solar capacity of 252 MW, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“Solar power has a bright future for families in the Tennessee Valley if we can continue to attract top-tier companies like Facebook,” Doug Perry, TVA vice president of Commercial Energy Solutions, said in an announcement.
Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the state’s economic development team is making a strategic push to recruit technology companies such as Facebook and Google.
“These are world-class companies, and initial projects in Alabama represent an important first chapter in the growth of our high-tech sector,” Secretary Canfield said. “We’re working hard to set the stage for the arrival of other technology companies and the high-paying jobs they bring with them.”
Like many high-tech companies, Facebook and Google have a commitment to using renewable energy. Between them, the companies are investing more than $1.3 billion in their Alabama data center projects.
These new utility-scale projects are rapidly expanding the state’s renewable energy landscape.
TVA’s projects for Google and Facebook, which also include new solar farms in Tennessee communities, may have even set a precedent, according to pv magazine USA, an industry publication.
“The net total of Google and Facebook’s actions are a development boom. If you had said last year that Alabama and Tennessee were on track to add 790 MW over just two development announcements, you’d have been accused of blasphemy,” PV Magazine noted.
In January, Google announced that in coming years it will purchase 413 MW of power from TVA for data centers it is building in Bridgeport, Alabama, and in Tennessee. The solar installation in Hollywood, Alabama, will produce around 150 MW. The two facilities will have 1.6 million solar panels.
“These solar sites will be among the largest renewable energy projects in the Tennessee Valley region, and the largest solar farms ever to be built for Google,” the company noted in a blog post.
“Thanks to the abundant solar power generated by these new farms, electricity consumed by our data centers in Tennessee and Alabama will be matched with 100 percent renewable energy from day one.”
Last November, TVA announced plans for the Colbert County solar farm and a smaller facility in Tennessee, whose combined output of 377 MW will serve the Facebook data center in Huntsville.
“This partnership aligns the core values of TVA’s public power model with Facebook’s mission to bring the world closer together — powered by renewable energy,” Perry said.
TRACKING THE SUN
In LaFayette, Houston-based Centaurus Renewable Energy operates a 72 MW solar installation called AL Solar A. The facility sits on 1,100 acres in Chambers County and is made up of more than 338,000 solar panels that automatically track the sun for optimum efficiency.
Alabama Power has a long-term power-purchase agreement with Centaurus to market the output of AL Solar A to its customers, chiefly to Walmart, which has adopted long-term sustainability goals..
“Sourcing renewable energy from the AL Solar A project plays a crucially important role in providing power for Walmart facilities throughout Alabama,” Steve Chriss, director of Energy and Strategy Analysis for Walmart, said at an event marking the facility’s opening last year.
Alabama Power has been involved in two other large-scale renewable energy projects, both on military bases in the state. A10 MW installation at Fort Rucker comprises more than 115,000 solar panels on 90 acres. A 7 MW facility at Anniston Army Depot uses more than 87,000 solar panels.
In addition to its planned projects, TVA purchases power from the River Bend Solar Energy Center in Lauderdale County. Operated by NextEra Energy Resources, the facility’s 300,000 solar panels have a generating capacity of 75 MW.
Alabama could be in line for more large-scale TVA solar projects. Late last year, TVA said it is planning to invest $8 billion in renewable energy over the next 20 years.
Alabama has another connection to solar power – on the manufacturing side. In June 2018, LG Electronics announced plans to invest $28 million to open an advanced solar module assembly plant in Huntsville, creating 160 jobs.
LG’s new Alabama factory is expected to produce 500 MW of the company’s high-performance N-type solar panels annually, equivalent to about 1 million panels each year.