A group is asking for the Effingham County commissioners’ help in turning an agriculturally-zoned tract into a farm of a different kind.
HMP Solar wants to install a solar farm on land off Blue Jay Road, and company officials want to move quickly in order to take advantage of Georgia Power’s imprimatur to provide solar power.
"This is a win-win for everybody," said Harold Porterfield of HMP Solar. "We think it’s a good system. We think it’s good for Effingham."
HMP Solar wants to put up a solar farm at 5100 Blue Jay Road, under the auspices of the Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative.
A nearby Georgia Power transmission line will be hooked up to the solar array. The Georgia Power Advanced Solar Initiative was approved last November. It will contract for 210 megawatts of solar power capacity over the next two years, and the utility’s small- and medium-scale programs are designed to generate 45 megawatts by 2014.
Georgia Power received so many applications — 600 in the state and nine alone in Effingham County, according to Porterfield — for the program that it held a lottery last month to find which projects will move forward.
Approved applicants have until the end of the year to get their solar farm in operation.
"We’ve already lost a month," Porterfield said. "It’s a number of things, and we kind of got behind the eight-ball. Georgia Power has set their deadline, ‘either you build by this date, or we give it to somebody else.’ Something needs to happen, and Georgia Power has given us a foot in the door."
Georgia Power wants to ramp up its solar power production from 61 megawatts a year to 271 megawatts by 2014. Porterfield said the company faces stiff penalties if it doesn’t produce more solar power in the next few years.
"Georgia Power is required to do so much green energy by solar or wind power by 2016," he said. "In order to do this, Georgia Power found it necessary to open this up to the public by doing residential, small scale, that could be installed on residential or agricultural lots without disturbing or impacting the environment."
Failing to do that, Porterfield said, could mean heavy fines and that, in turn, could lead to higher electric bills.
He also said it won’t be a money generator for himself.
"I promise, we are not going to make a bunch of money," Porterfield said. "It’s going to be 12 years before I see a dime and 20 years before we can justify doing this."
Porterfield said they are trying to get these put on agricultural lots, and a similar solar farm is being installed at Ottawa Farms outside of Bloomingdale. Two others are being erected on a Laurens County pecan farm, paid for by the state Department of Agriculture.
The land is zoned AR-1, and it may have to have an industrial or commercial zoning to allow for the solar farm. Though the impact is expected to be minimal, and then could be allowed conditionally under its current zoning, it could take two and a half months to rezone or amend the zoning district.
"I don’t see any fast answer," county zoning administrator George Shaw said.
Shaw said he views the requested use as similar to that for a cell phone tower, referring to it as a passive utility. Unlike a cell tower, Shaw pointed out, there is no concrete pad and no generator needed.
But a rezoning is needed to place a cell tower on agriculturally-zoned land, Shaw said.
Construction will take about two months, with up to six truck deliveries for all the material needed. Porterfield also said there will be little to no truck traffic for the solar farm once it’s erected.
"There is no infrastructure required," he said. "There is no support system, no sewer, no water. There is no hazardous material to deal with."
Porterfield added that maintenance for the site will be performed once per year. Other than that, there will be no traffic at the site.
"Once (construction) is done, no one but maintenance people will be going to the site," he said.
The systems also take up no more than five acres, according to Porterfield, and once the solar farm has reached the end of its lifespan, it can be removed quickly.
"These things are not fixed to the ground permanently," Porterfield said. "In 20 years, we pop them right out of the ground, and we let the trees grow back."
Two other developers attempted to build on the tract but were unsuccessful. They also ran into opposition from neighbors concerned about the drainage.
Porterfield told commissioners he lives on the Ogeechee River, and he is aware of environmental concerns.
"The last thing I want is more trouble for our environment," he said. "That’s what got me thinking about this."
Chairman Wendall Kessler also issued another potential hurdle. He bought the land where the solar farm is planned at a tax sale. The owners still can redeem the land.
Andrew Tanner also said the solar farms will do educational programs for the local schools.