A solar farm with some 4,400 photovoltaic panels near Lyerly, Ga., is the newest part of what experts are calling the nation's fastest-growing solar electricity program.
Pete Marte, the president and CEO of Atlanta-based Hannah Solar, says Georgia's growing solar footprint is thanks largely to a man named "Bubba."
Marte is clearing ground for the seven-acre solar farm in Lyerly, a town of about 500 people in Chattooga County.
"For North Georgia, it'll be one of the bigger [solar farms]," Marte said.
The 1.2-megawatt farm, which Marte plans to sell to an undisclosed buyer after it's completed at the end of September, will help feed Georgia Power's suddenly ravenous appetite for solar power. The Atlanta-based public utility signed a 20-year contract to buy electricity from the facility.
Georgia Power has agreed that by 2016, it will get 900 megawatts of its electricity -- enough to power more than 80,000 homes -- from solar power, about a ninefold increase from the roughly 100 megawatts of solar power Georgia Power has in its mix now.
Marte said Georgia Power agreed to up its solar electricity usage at the urging of Georgia's Public Service Commission, whose chief, Lauren "Bubba" McDonald Jr., is the state's most vocal supporter of solar power.
"He's the man," Marte said. "He's our solar savior for Georgia."
Conditions are right to push for solar, said McDonald, a silver-haired Republican from Clarksville who served 20 years as a state representative and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990.
Solar technology has advanced tremendously in the last few years, McDonald said, and the price has dropped dramatically. Georgia isn't subsidizing solar power, he said, and its use isn't driving up utility bills.
"When you put all these together, that makes the perfect storm," McDonald said.
Unlike a nuclear reactor, which produces energy around the clock and on cloudy days, solar power needs sunlight. That helps on sunny days when peak demand for electricity is high because of air conditioning.
"It doesn't go 24/7," McDonald said. "But it is a great peak performer."
The Public Service Commission worked with Georgia Power to increase the amount of solar power the utility uses, he said. The switch to solar will help offset the decommissioning of 12 coal-powered electric generators in Georgia that are too old, and expensive to retrofit, McDonald said.
Georgia Power spokesman John Kraft said the utility has programs to accept solar power from facilities ranging from homes' rooftops to large solar farms that generate as much as 30 megawatts to meet its 2016 goal.
"It's going to be a very busy next two years," Kraft said.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has a smaller amount of solar electricity as its source than Georgia Power hopes to use.
TVA has 74.5 megawatts operating and 6.5 megawatts approved from small home or business installations in the Tennessee Valley, TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said.
"We also have applications pending or contracts for another 200 megawatts from larger solar installations [businesses and solar farms] that haven't come on or been completed yet," he said via email.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.