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SUMESH ARORA — Keeping the lights on and growing jobs with solar energy

SUMESH ARORA

SUMESH ARORA

In my last column I shared the nationally acclaimed story about how the Mississippi Baptist Medical Center (MBMC) in Jackson kept its lights on in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by relying on their combined heat and power system.  Another tiny ray of light, literally and figuratively, was the solar panel system installed at a home located on Mills Avenue in Gulfport.  This one-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system was installed in early 2003 as a demonstration project by the Mississippi Alternative Energy Enterprise (MAEE) program.  Innovate Mississippi (known at the time as the Mississippi Technology Alliance) managed the MAEE program.  I served as the project development engineer for MAEE from 2003 – 2005 and had an opportunity to work on several renewable energy projects around the state including this one.

About three days after Katrina hit, I remember getting a call from the owner of this home.  I had been thinking about this system and was concerned about its fate.  This was a unique system in that the six panels were mounted on a motorized rack capable of following the earth’s rotation which allowed the panels to track the sun to maximize the solar radiation collection. The entire rack assembly was mounted on a single pole standing about eight feet tall located in the yard on the south side of the house.  Even though this system was designed to withstand strong winds, I was worried that the panels had blown or washed away.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard Mr. Hawthorne’s excited voice telling me that they were the only ones in their neighborhood with power and once they figured out that they should use their refrigerator sparingly, they could keep their lights on much longer.  This setup had a battery backup system consisting of six deep-cycle marine batteries which were charged by the PV panels during the day, thus providing electricity after dark. The residents of the dwelling had to learn to manage the electrical loads and use the appliances in the house that were of critical importance.  A hair dryer was out of the question because it would drain the batteries very quickly!  But they did have access to hot water because they also had a solar-thermal system installed as part of the demonstration project. Stay tuned for more on solar-thermal systems in subsequent columns.

There were two key lessons learned from this demonstration project. One) solar PV systems can be easily designed to withstand strong hurricanes or other severe weather events and two) reinforcement that generating electricity on-site is a vital part of disaster preparedness.  On-site power generation, also referred to as distributed generation (DG), is an innovative solution which complements the utility grid.  In some instances DG can substitute for the electrical grid, but by and large the two work in tandem with each other.  DG systems are typically powered by renewable energy resources like solar, wind, biogas, biomass, small-hydro or geothermal energy, but can also utilize natural gas, methane gas from landfills or municipal solid waste.

The solar PV industry has come a long way since we did these demonstration projects in the early part of the 21st century.  Within the last decade alone, the prices of PV systems have dropped two or three fold and are now competitive with fossil fuel electricity generation in several parts of the world including locations in the United States.  The price drops and the solar panel efficiency gains are even more impressive if you consider the time frame starting in the 1980’s.  Electrical utilities all over the country are now very interested in understanding how this impacts current means of power generation, transmission and distribution.

Mississippi is experiencing tremendous growth in the solar energy industry and by the end of 2016 we will have nearly 170 megawatts of installed generation capacity.  This represents nearly a 25 fold increase from the current capacity.  Not all solar panels are installed on residential rooftops or on backyard solar trackers. There is an increasing trend toward building “utility-scale” PV systems which supply power directly to the electrical utility company rather than to an individual home or business.  In addition to the innovations in development of new types of solar materials such as the research on organic PV cells being conducted at the University of Southern Mississippi, technology entrepreneurs and established companies such as GE are developing software which allows better integration of DG systems with the grid.  By using sophisticated weather models, utilities are getting better at predicting when the renewable energy resource will be available to them such that they can balance generation from fossil fuel fired plants.

I recently spoke with Todd Jackson, business development director, economic development for the Area Development Partnership based in Hattiesburg, and he shared the following with me.

“With over 150 megawatts of solar energy soon to be produced in Greater Hattiesburg, not only do these projects provide a green energy source, but they also provide a substantial revenue stream to the local communities and school systems, with over $280 million in capital investment slated to take place in the next year.  This revenue stream also comes with very little impact to our existing infrastructure and requires investments from the local governing bodies that pale in comparison to traditional economic development projects.  During the construction phase of these projects we anticipate the creation of over 500 jobs related to building these large facilities, which in turn will have a tremendous impact our local economy over the next year.”

Data show that Mississippi ranks as the tenth best state in the country for solar energy potential based on solar irradiance, which in this case is a measure of the sun’s intensity over a given surface area.  Todd added, “Hattiesburg’s solar irradiance characteristic has allowed it to be positioned as a “hub” for solar energy production.  Our already hi-tech college town is currently leveraging this distinctive trait to garner capital investment in solar energy facilities that diversify our energy production portfolio and provide our citizens and businesses an ability to reduce their carbon footprint.”

According to a press release from Origis Energy, the output of one of the solar installations in the Hattiesburg area will be sold to South Mississippi Electric Power Association and is estimated to be able to meet the needs of about 10,000 local households during its first year of operations.

Todd concluded, “With more and more companies today adopting strategies to reduce their carbon footprint, we are excited to have the opportunity to offer a green energy source here in Hattiesburg that sets our community apart in the Southeast United States.  Greater Hattiesburg is on the verge of becoming the “Solar Capital” of the Southeast and we look forward to the future growth that this alternative energy source can provide.”

» Dr. Sumesh Arora is Vice President at Innovate Mississippi, a non-profit organization with a mission to drive innovative business growth in Mississippi.  His doctoral research was focused on how new ideas spread and its applications to business, economic and policy development.  Follow him on Twitter @DrSumeshArora or contact via email at sarora@innovate.ms with questions about developing innovation strategy for your company or organization.

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