How Solar Grew In Georgia Despite Lack Of Mandates On Renewable Energy Solar is booming in Georgia, and it's not because of state mandates supporting renewable energy or concerns about climate change. Instead, powerful market forces are driving the growth.
NPR logo

How Georgia Became A Surprising Bright Spot In The U.S. Solar Industry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/733795962/735510443" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Georgia Became A Surprising Bright Spot In The U.S. Solar Industry

How Georgia Became A Surprising Bright Spot In The U.S. Solar Industry

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/733795962/735510443" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As states consider what, if anything, to do about climate change, one thing more than half of them have done is set mandates around renewable energy. In many places, that's driving the growth of wind and solar. But it's not happening everywhere. Today and tomorrow, I'm going to take you on a road trip to a state that proudly has no such mandate, Georgia, my home state. Again, no mandates requiring clean energy, and yet, Georgia is in the middle of a solar power boom. And I can tell you that with confidence because I just drove it top to bottom.

We started in Dalton, north Georgia, near the Tennessee state line. When I was a kid growing up in Georgia, when someone said Dalton, you said carpets.

I mean, this was a one-horse town for a long time.

DENNIS MOCK: Oh, absolutely.

KELLY: Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock, who assures me Dalton is still, quote, "the carpet capital of the world." They make all kinds of floor coverings, actually - laminates, hardwood, tiles. And then last year, a company from Korea came knocking.

MOCK: They showed up. We liked them, and they liked us. And that's how it works.

KELLY: The company was Hanwha Q Cells. This January, five months ago here in Dalton, Ga., production began at the biggest solar assembly factory in the western hemisphere.

LISA NASH: When we go out on the floor, there are a lot of moving pieces, so if we can all stay together.

KELLY: Our guide, Lisa Nash - she helped hire the 600 people this factory now employs.

We've just stepped through a couple of double doors onto the main factory floor. It's about a football-field-and-a-half long. Getting the lay of the land of the production line here.

Actually, three production lines side by side, operating 24/7. Around us, solar cells are getting slotted into frames. Workers are checking for defects. I'm trying to wrap my head around the scale of the place when a kind of critter forklift approaches.

What are these little robot cars I just saw scooting around the floor?

NASH: So those are Hysters.

KELLY: Hysters, they're basically unmanned forklifts. And they are hauling pallets of finished panels around. Almost all the machinery here was shipped over from Korea so the final solar product could be assembled here in Georgia. And my question for Scott Moskowitz, director of strategy and market intelligence, is, why?

Why Georgia?

SCOTT MOSKOWITZ: Why Georgia? Well, first of all, the U.S. is the second-largest solar market in the world. It will be for the foreseeable future.

KELLY: He's led us up to a conference room. We have peeled off the big plastic goggles and paper booties we were required to wear on the factory floor. Moskowitz says locating in Georgia made sense in part because a lot of customers want to do the tour we have just done, see firsthand how their panels are made.

MOSKOWITZ: The vast majority of these will end up in projects in the U.S. and many of them in projects in the southeast because this is the largest region for solar installations over the next five years.

KELLY: So demand is high.

MOSKOWITZ: Demand for solar is high and growing.

KELLY: Then there's the matter of tariffs. Scott Moskowitz says they were already eyeing the U.S. market when President Trump slapped a 30% tariff on solar imports. Just four months later, May 2018, Hanwha Q Cells announced this plant.

MOSKOWITZ: Tariffs have made it such that, for the time being, this is the most attractive place to assemble panels for use in the U.S. market.

KELLY: OK, now let me introduce another player on the solar scene here in Georgia - Facebook. Yes, Facebook is headquartered on the other side of the country, but they are behind one of the first orders for this factory in Dalton. Last year around the same time Hanwha Q Cells was sniffing around in Dalton, Facebook announced plans to build a giant data center just a couple of hours drive southeast. So we point our car down I-75, towards our next stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGHWAY TRAFFIC)

KELLY: So we have now driven out east of Atlanta. We're in Newton County, Ga. I'm looking out over a massive building site with cement mixers and dumpsters and all kinds of construction equipment. This is the future site of what a lot of people we've met here in Georgia are describing to us as a game-changer for solar in Georgia.

That is because the building taking shape in front of me, when it comes online next year, it is going to require as much energy as a small to midsize city. Facebook's data centers house the servers that process every time you like a post or comment on a friend's. Paul Clements runs the Facebook team that scouts new locations. He told me when he originally came hunting a couple years ago, he noticed something.

PAUL CLEMENTS: It's very sunny in the south part of Georgia, yet renewable energy was not really taking off in the state.

KELLY: Which he saw as an opportunity. The field was wide open. Facebook could tailor the kind of solar deal it wanted in Georgia. And market forces were cooperating. The price of solar has been falling and falling - more than 70% over the last decade.

CLEMENTS: We found that when we go into new regions and we're able to access renewable energy, that we typically are able to achieve lower electricity rates than we would through a normal, non-green energy solution.

KELLY: Which matters because Facebook has set a company goal - support all its electricity needs with 100% renewable energy by next year. Here in Georgia, the utility that is giving Facebook access to all that renewable energy is Walton EMC, headquartered about 20 miles back north from the Facebook construction site.

We roll up and are greeted by...

GREG BROOKS: Greg Brooks, and I'm the community and public relations director.

KELLY: Brooks says his customers want solar - big customers such as Facebook and your everyday Joe. But some people's roofs are too shady. Some people don't want solar panels on top of their houses. Some people can't afford them. So Brooks brings us out to see one of the community solar installations they have built, kind of sort of like a community garden.

So it is a scorcher of a day here in Georgia. It's going to be 90-something degrees again. We've just driven to - you said this is the smallest of the community lots you've got going.

BROOKS: Forty-two hundred panels takes about six acres.

KELLY: How this works - if you are a Walton EMC customer, you can opt to pay 25 bucks a month. You get a block of solar panels in the community plot and a credit on your bill. It has been popular - so popular, the first two installations sold out in days. Now, renewables account for a tiny fraction of the energy mix Walton EMC provides customers.

BROOKS: It is still less than 1%.

KELLY: That is soon to change, though, thanks to Facebook. The amount of power that Facebook will gobble up means Walton EMC has to build a couple new solar plants to serve them.

I mean, how big a deal is that for a company like Walton EMC?

BROOKS: It's a huge deal.

KELLY: A game-changer kind of deal or...

BROOKS: I would say so. We're actually getting calls from other companies now. Their corporate philosophy and policy is that they want to do renewable, too.

KELLY: Now, I should point out the obvious. Solar does not work at night, does not work when it rains. So there are going to be times when Facebook will have to rely on fossil fuels. When the sun is out, those new solar farms will send more clean energy to the grid than Facebook can use during the day. And that excess will count towards their renewable energy goal.

BROOKS: Solar is a valuable piece of the energy mix, but I don't ever see us going to 100% of any one fuel source.

KELLY: Then again, Greg Brooks never thought he would be standing here in 2019 next to rows and rows of solar panels talking about the solar boom in Georgia.

BROOKS: Even 10 years ago, I didn't think so because it was so expensive. It's amazing. To me, this is the most fun project I've worked on in my career.

KELLY: Oh, really? Why?

BROOKS: It kind of gets us back to our roots because the people we were invented to serve planted something in a field. And the sun shined on it, and they harvested that crop. And we planted these solar panels out here, and we're harvesting what the sun is given us to serve our members. So that's - that's kind of neat.

KELLY: Now, land near Atlanta is expensive. So the solar farms for Facebook, they are going up in the south of the state. Our road trip continues tomorrow.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.