Just in time for the new year, and for a tax break for the old one,
Consolidated Utilities began producing electricity from solar panels at its
water treatment plant in west Chatham County on the afternoon of New Year's
"When I left on Monday the meter was receiving power," said Tony Abbott, president of Consolidated Utilities, a private local water company.
The 416-panel, 100-kilowatt system is big enough to power about 10 average homes for 25 years, said Julian Smith, of SolarSmith, which installed the system. At the water treatment site, however, solar will instead power the blowers that keep the sewage ponds aerated. The panels occupy previously useless property in a flood zone, Smith noted.
It's not the largest solar installation in the county. That honor still goes to the IKEA distribution center, which in October plugged in its 1,460-kilowatt solar array on the roof of its distribution center. That IKEA installation is in fact the largest in the state.
But Consolidated's effort is nothing to sniff at, said Shan Arora, project manager at Southface, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that promotes energy-, water- and resource-efficient workplaces, homes and communities throughout the Southeast.
"It's a big deal installation for Georgia," said Arora, who created and maintains an interactive map of solar in Georgia at http://georgiaenergydata.org/solarmap/. "Anything 100 kilowatts or higher I consider a large installation."
And the new array adds to Chatham County's reputation as a state leader in solar installations. Chatham trails only the metro Atlanta counties of Fulton and DeKalb in terms of both the number of installations and their total energy output.
"What's really going on in Chatham is that lots of homeowners put solar on their rooftops," Arora said. "The excitement exists in Chatham for solar."
Behind some of that excitement is Jack Star, a former bureau chief for McGraw-Hill World News, where he worked on numerous energy-related publications. Since 2005 Star has worked tirelessly, volunteering his time and effort to promote solar in public and private projects. He blogs and organizes get-togethers for people interested in solar technology and policy.
Even Star was surprised to hear Chatham is a solar star, though he's been preaching its worthiness for years.
"We get the most solar hours on the East Coast except for south Florida right here in the Lowcountry," he said.
As he drives around Savannah he finds himself looking to rooftops and evaluating their solar suitability. While's the city's urban forest precludes installing solar on many homes, including his own, there's plenty of room for growth, he said.
"I'd ask people to go outside and take a look at the south-facing area of the house," he said. "Do you tend to get shade or not? Is there fairly decent area where you don't? Ask yourself 'Am I suited?' If you're set up right and you're going to live in your house another seven years, why not do solar?
At Consolidated, Abbott is already planning to add another 100 kilowatts of solar.
After factoring in a 30 percent federal tax rebate and accelerated depreciation available for alternate energy projects, Abbott expects the current solar panels to pay for themselves in about three years. But he didn't install them for the economic benefit alone.
"We thought it was a good green initiative," he said.
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