How The Push For Renewable Energy Is Changing Southwest Georgia

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 25, 2019 10:15 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to head out next on a road trip with our colleague Mary Louise Kelly. She's been driving her home state of Georgia top to bottom, reporting on how clean energy is taking hold in a red state. This summer, we're looking at clean energy, climate change and what it's going to take for the U.S. to cut carbon emissions. In Georgia, Mary Louise has found solar energy taking off and changing communities in the process. Today her road trip takes her to Early County in the southwest corner of Georgia.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Among the first things you notice when you cross into this part of Georgia - plenty of good, flat land, plenty of sun - sometimes, too much.

MIKE NEWBERRY: Golly, we got lucky, y'all. The sun kind of disappeared.

KELLY: The sun has disappeared, hooray.

NEWBERRY: And the wind started blowing. How nice could that be?

KELLY: Mike Newberry, fourth generation here at Hillside farms - the directions he gave us involved no street names. There's a big curve, he told us. And if you hit the Baker County line, you've gone too far. We find him eventually, and Newberry walks me out to one of his fields.

NEWBERRY: This is very typical for Southwest Georgia - a lot of peanuts, a lot of cotton and a lot of corn. But we're looking at a peanut field that's about a month old.

KELLY: The work is hard. This spring was too dry - no rain. This time of year, Newberry gets up at 5 a.m., works till 9 at night. Newberry tells me he loves farming. But at his age, 62, he's thinking of doing something different, maybe even selling some of his land.

NEWBERRY: The right piece of land in the right place - yes.

KELLY: It's been on his mind since developers began showing up a few years ago, interested in land to build solar farms. Now, again, for generations, land around here has supported peanuts, cotton, pine trees - not solar farms. But Newberry, who's also chairman of the county's economic development authority, shoos away a swarm of gnats and tells me he's got one kid - a daughter, who has a job and a life off the farm.

NEWBERRY: And this generation has no tie with the land, so that little heart thing holding it may not be gone. But it's a matter of economics now. And that's true all around us. That's true all around us.

KELLY: A matter of economics - I ask Mike Newberry if his neighbors know much about solar, whether they care where their electricity comes from.

I mean, just to make it personal, do you care where your electricity comes from?

NEWBERRY: I could care less. I want it the cheapest (laughter). I want to pay the cheapest as I can.

KELLY: Drive west for 15 minutes, turning off hot, black, asphalt roads onto dirt, and a solar farm is going up fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY RUNNING)

KELLY: Row after row of steel posts sprout from red Georgia clay. They will be fitted with frames to support the solar panels.

NICK DE VRIES: These are articulated single-axis trackers.

KELLY: Nick de Vries, showing me how the panels will swivel as the day unfolds. De Vries is vice president of technology for silicon ranch. It's a developer out of Nashville that is building solar power plants all over the country. This one is on track to be up and running by the end of the year - 355,000 solar panels blanketing this land as far as you can see.

DE VRIES: This is one of the beauties of solar power plants. We know our production rates. We know what it takes to build. You can build a large power plant construction within a year.

KELLY: De Vries says as the solar industry's matured and costs have fallen, renewable energy can actually be cheaper than traditional.

DE VRIES: We are now able to deliver energy at very competitive prices.

KELLY: So here's how it's all coming together. Right now here in Georgia, the solar panels we see going up here were assembled and shipped from a brand-new Korean-owned factory in Dalton, Ga., up north - opposite corner of the state. And the power that those panels generate will supply a new data center east of Atlanta for Facebook. That is also under construction and committed to 100% renewable energy.

So much change so fast - mixed feelings about it?

STEVE SINGLETARY: Yeah, big time. I hate to see it go, but things change. It was a golden opportunity, so we took advantage of it.

KELLY: This is Steve Singletary. It was his family's land that Silicon Ranch bought for the solar farm - land they'd owned for nearly nine decades. Singletary tells me he cares about the environment, but the decision to sell to a solar company - it wasn't about the environment. It was about money.

Would you have sold that land to a nuclear facility?

SINGLETARY: Probably.

KELLY: Coal?

SINGLETARY: Probably.

KELLY: Singletary's sitting, by the way, with me and his friend June Merritt. She runs this county. She is chair of the Early County Commission, which has been agreeable to all the solar projects, especially this one.

JUNE MERRITT: There's no downside. I don't know how it could be. We don't have pollution. We don't have smell. There's just nothing. They're just there.

KELLY: We've met up in an old theater, where the county commission now meets in Blakely, the county seat.

What's it bringing to you? I mean, why is this good for Early County?

MERRITT: It's good for Early County for money. I would say over the next 25 years, there will be about $8 million that will come into Early County in the form of taxes. And that will be a tremendous relief.

KELLY: Merritt says 5 million of that will go to county schools. And there's another way Silicon Ranch is engaging with the community here, which brings us to the last stop on our road trip. It involves cows.

All right, Will Harris, tell us where you're taking us this morning. Why are we driving?

WILL HARRIS: So we're just leaving our general store, heading for one of the paddocks, where our big herd is grazing.

KELLY: I'll let you picture him - cowboy hat, gray beard, suspenders holding up his jeans. He's driving. His gun is in a holster dangling from the back of the passenger seat - my seat - as we bounce along.

HARRIS: (Unintelligible) a disservice.

KELLY: Will Harris is fourth generation here at White Oak Pastures. His family's been on this land since 1866. When he found out what Silicon Ranch was doing next door, he came up with a big idea, which is maybe you can have it both ways. Maybe you can have a solar farm and keep the land for agriculture. I'll explain, but hang on. The cows are coming.

HARRIS: If you're going to record, you need to get out.

KELLY: OK. Just watching a couple thousand head of cattle move through a big, green, metal gate. They're moving from one paddock to another - watching a cowboy drive them through.

(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)

KELLY: What Will Harris is doing on his farm is called regenerative land management. Put simply, he's trying to restore cycles of nature broken by humans and chemicals and over-farming. Harris rotates different animals through his pastures. First, the cattle - let them eat and poop. There's rich nutrients in there. Then move them on. Bring in sheep or other animals to eat what the cows didn't eat. Let the land recover, and repeat. Now, imagine this same scenario - a couple thousand cows chewing on knee-high grass on a solar farm. That is what Will Harris and Silicon Ranch are working out how to do here in Southwest Georgia.

HARRIS: What you don't want to do is let this brand-new grass bud out and bite it off, bud out and bite it off.

DE VRIES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HARRIS: We call it eat it to death...

DE VRIES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Literally.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

KELLY: Harris explains to Nick de Vries that this kind of grazing will help prevent erosion under the solar panels. And long term, as the soil revitalizes, he thinks it could draw carbon out of the atmosphere, as he's proven on his own land. Outside experts have studied Harris' farm and found his soil could be capturing as much carbon as his cows are emitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

KELLY: So that is one thread of the solar story being written today in Georgia, a red state, where people are trying to figure out, in a state with a lot of land and a lot of sun, just how far solar can go.

HARRIS: All right. Thank you all for going with me.

KELLY: Thank you for driving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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