By BECKY GILLETTE
In recent years, customer surveys for the 11 rural electric cooperatives in Mississippi that purchase power from the not-for-profit Cooperative Energy (formerly South Mississippi Electric Power Association) have indicated a higher interest in using “green” power — electricity generated from alternative energy sources such as wind, hydro-electric and solar.
Now one of the state’s largest ever commercial solar projects is under way in Sumrall where a 52-megawatt solar farm encompassing 208,000 photovoltaic solar panels spread out over 540 acres is expected to go online for Cooperative Energy by the end of the year.
“The prices on solar continue to come down,” said Christa Bishop, senior vice president of communications at Cooperative Energy, which generates wholesale electricity for the rural electric cooperatives in 55 counties in Mississippi.
“We continue to study the economics of solar power. As the cost decreases, we will likely add more solar in the future. We did a survey of our end users asking what is important to them and what they want. Renewables have recently become a consistent answer. That is why we looked into the solar plants.”
Currently about 400 construction workers are employed building the new solar power facility near Hattiesburg. Cooperative Energy made the decision to purchase power from the new solar farm after the success of five pilot solar plants located at five of their member sites: Southern Pine, Delta Electric, Coahoma Electric, Coast Electric and Singing River Electric.
“Each had small solar sites on the property so we could get into solar power generation and see how it works,” Bishop said. “Then we went forward with the large project. I anticipate we will add more solar in the coming years. We are doing an economic analysis of that.”
Bishop said the solar projects add more diversity to the generation mix for Cooperative Energy. Right now, their power mix is 69.7 percent natural gas, 21.3 percent coal, 6.3 percent nuclear, and 2.7 percent renewables (includes hydro and solar power). Bishop said with the addition of the new solar generating facility, the renewables percentage will go up at that point.
The Sumrall facility is being built and will be operated by Origis Energy Inc. Cooperative Energy will purchase the all electricity generated at the facility, which is expected to provide power to more than 10,000 homes and result in a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 54,672 kilograms per year.
“We are honored to be working with Cooperative Energy as they power more homes and businesses with solar every year,” said Johan Vanhee, managing director of business development for Origis Energy. “These utility and community leaders understand that solar provides clean, affordable power while creating jobs, economic and environmental benefits.”
To celebrate the partnership, Origis and Cooperative Energy recently made a joint donation to the Mississippi Economic Council’s Mississippi Scholars and Tech Masters programs. Mississippi Scholars provides a focus on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum and is offered in 118 school districts. Tech Master is designed to provide technical skills to help students have the ability to thrive in the workplace.
Vanhee said there is an enormous nationwide demand for technical expertise in many industries.
“We are seeing a high demand for many skilled, technical positions in the energy industry alone, but there are a multitude of other industry sectors where high-paying jobs are available,” he said.
“We have been impressed with the quality of the work force in Mississippi, but we need to increase the quantity. Origis Energy is a strong supporter of education, and Mississippi Scholars and Tech Master were the ideals vehicles for that support through their STEM-based education initiatives.”
The donation also reflects an interest in supporting a trained work force in Mississippi to help keep companies and communities strong.
“The Mississippi Scholars and Tech Master programs are helping Mississippi students by providing the coursework and training for successful jobs,” said Jim Compton, CEO of Cooperative Energy. “The Mississippi Scholars and Tech Master programs are of special interest to our company as they will provide pathways for students to great careers with very good incomes, and at the same time Cooperative Energy and its members will benefit via a trained workforce. Everybody wins. These programs are in schools located throughout Mississippi, so the entire state benefits – not just one geographic region. This was especially attractive to our board and instrumental in our decision to donate to these particular programs.”
Bishop said STEM education is important not just to meet the workforce demands from the solar plants, but throughout their system.
“We do a lot of things in support of STEM education,” she said. “It is important to us because these are the students we hope will someday be potential employees for Cooperative Energy or for our 11 members we serve power to. We employ control center operators, chemists and chemical, mechanical, civil, telecommunications and electrical engineers. We currently have 447 employees across the state. We have a headquarters in Hattiesburg, natural gas generating plants in Moselle and Batesville, and a coal-fired generating plant in Purvis. Cooperative Energy also owns 10 percent of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station located in Port Gibson.”
Bishop said other STEM-related efforts by the company include working within local schools to teach students about energy, where electricity comes from, the electric utility industry and possible careers. They provide power-plant tours, including tours of the solar facilities, for students and teachers, sponsor local robotics programs and a co-op engineering program for college students that gives real world job experiences for college students.
After 75 years being known as the South Mississippi Electric Power Association, the name was changed in November 2016 to better reflect the territory covered.
“We serve about 423,000 members in 55 counties and nearly a million Mississippians,” she said. “Politically, the name change was helpful because in addition to members in the southern part of the state, we have members in the northern and Delta areas of the state. Our 11 member cooperatives are located from the Gulf Coast all the way up to the western part of the state through the Mississippi Delta to the Tennessee state line.”
For more information, go online www. cooperativenergy.com.