The southeastern U.S. state of Georgia has emerged as the country’s hottest new market for solar, driven largely by data centre demand from tech giant Facebook and regional reaction to the punishing, 30% tariff the Trump administration imposed on solar components from China in 2018.
While Trump’s move at the time was widely seen as a combined bid to blow up his country’s international trading relationships and favour the fossil energy interests that supported his 2016 campaign for the White House, the rise of solar has been an unintended consequence—at least for now.
National Public Radio begins its profile in Dalton, a northern Georgia city near the Tennessee line, where Seoul, South Korea-based Hanwha Q Cells America invested US$150 million in the western hemisphere’s biggest solar panel assembly plant.
“This is the largest region for solar installations in the next five years,” said the company’s director of strategy and market intelligence, Scott Moskowitz.
“They knew we were good for manufacturing jobs and plenty of them,” added Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock.
“It’s not for the reasons you might expect,” NPR explains. “Like most states in the Southeast, Georgia doesn’t have the kind of state-level mandates that have propelled the growth of renewable energy in other parts of the country. Nor is it because of a groundswell of public concern over climate change or the need to curb greenhouse gases.”
Rather, “there are powerful market forces at work. The U.S. is the second-largest market for solar in the world, after China. Ever cheaper and better solar technology, available land, and lots of sunshine are driving demand for massive, utility-scale solar projects across the American Southeast.”
NPR says the plant began shipping panels in February 2019, now operates around the clock every day of the week, and employs 600 people on high-tech assembly lines. The lines themselves—and the solar panels—are imported from South Korea, and may become subject to tariffs next year, when the plant hits its import quota.
“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,” Moskowitz said. “The vast majority of these will end up in projects in the U.S.”
NPR notes that access to affordable renewable energy is a big part of what led Facebook to locate some of its data centres, which account for 90% of its energy use, in Georgia. The company expects to hit its 2020 target to run 100% of its operations with renewables.
“We have to have access to 100% renewable energy for our facilities,” said Director of Energy and Infrastructure Paul Clements. “If we’re unable to achieve that, we won’t locate in that region.”
Even with energy-efficient design, he added, Facebook’s new data centre in Newton County, about 45 miles east of Atlanta, will consume as much as a small to mid-sized city.
With the cost of U.S. solar installations down 70% in the last decade, and federal tax credits still available, a company like Facebook can translate renewable energy supplies into affordable electricity. “We’ve found that when we go into new regions and are 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,” Clements told NPR.
Facebook’s electricity supplier in Georgia, Monroe-area electricity cooperative Walton EMC, generated nearly half of its electricity from coal as recently as 2010. “Now, natural gas is the dominant source,” NPR notes, citing Walton EMC Community and Public Relations Director Greg Brooks. “Renewables make up a tiny fraction—less than 1% of the mix. However, with the solar projects coming online for Facebook, renewables will jump to somewhere between 15 and 20%,” and “all signs point to continued growth. As word of the Facebook deal has gotten out, Brooks says, Walton EMC has gotten inquiries from other like-minded companies.”
Georgia landowners who were unfamiliar with the solar industry—and often unwilling to buy into the reality of climate change—were less than eager to lease their land for solar farms to power the new data centre. But Early County farmer Steve Singletary was fine with selling 1,400 acres, about a quarter of his land, to Nashville, Tennessee-based Silicon Ranch.
“Hate to see it go,” Singletary told NPR, “but things change, and it was a golden opportunity. So we took advantage of it,” at a time when no one in his family wanted to take over the farm and Silicon Ranch looked to be offering a good deal.
NPR says the climate crisis didn’t come up in the negotiations, and if it had, it wouldn’t have influenced the decision for Singletary, who said he would have been just as happy to sell to a coal or nuclear plant.
“The world’s not coming to an end next week because of climate change,” he said. “I’m just skeptical of the whole thing. To me, it’s played up way more than the effect it’s actually having.”
But Silicon Ranch Technology Vice President Nick de Vries pointed to an advantage solar can offer that no coal or nuclear plant comes close to matching. “You can build a large power plant…within a year,” he said. “Year over year, as we’ve matured, as we’ve industrialized, we are now able to deliver energy at very competitive prices.”
And with the Dalton assembly plant online, “now we can source more and more of the different parts that go into this construction locally—either from within the state or surrounding states,” he added. “This shortens our lead times,” and “that’s important for business.”