Higgins: Golden triangle striking ‘balance’ with solar power

In less than 18 months, three 2,000-acre sites in the Golden Triangle – two in Lowndes County, one in West Point – are under contract to solar energy production facilities. Another 2,000 acres adjacent to the Clay County project, as well as another comparable site near the Starkville Industrial Park, have also been identified as possible solar installations.

So how big are these facilities?

Joe Max Higgins, CEO of Golden Triangle Development LINK, did not immediately respond to the question. Instead, he swiveled in his office chair, tapped his keyboard. A Google Earth image appeared on his desktop.

“This is the steel plant,” he said, referring to the Steel Dynamics property of the Lowndes County Industrial Park. “It’s all over there, the steel plant and all the other businesses. That’s about 1,200 acres. This should give you an idea of ​​the size of these solar projects. “

The three planned solar installations are being built by a Florida-based company Origis Energy, which contracted with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Together, the three sites, which will begin to be commissioned in successive years from fall 2022, will produce a total of 550 megawatts of power as well as an additional 300 megawatts in battery storage.

They represent a capital investment of over $ 500 million and will generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for West Point and Clay County (although the facility is located in Clay County, the town and county is share tax revenues under an interlocal arrangement), Lowndes County and the West Point-Clay and Lowndes County school districts.

What they will not produce are permanent jobs, at least not in significant numbers.

“There will be 150 construction jobs, and that means burgers and hotel rooms, cigarettes and gasoline, which is good for the city’s sales tax revenue,” Higgins said. . “It always increases when you have construction work. But after that, you might just be talking about a handful of permanent jobs. This is not going to move the jobs needle. “

Thus, if the solar installations tick the box “tax revenue”, they miss the mark in the category “job creation”, which are the two main missions of the LINK.

A two-way street

So it’s a compromise.

But there are other potential compromises Higgins has heard of.

When companies like Origis are looking for locations, two important factors are terrain and infrastructure, said Johan Vanhee, Director of Purchasing at Origis.
“Is there sufficient transmission capacity to avoid the construction of new transmission lines?” Said Vanhee. “Is there enough land available and profitable?”
The answers to these questions in Lowndes and Clay Counties were an emphatic yes. With six 161-kilovolt transmission lines in Lowndes County and the massive Clay County substation, Origis found sites that would allow it to connect to transmission infrastructure at minimal cost.

What was originally intended to supply electricity to industries in the two zones of the industrial park can now be used to supply energy produced by solar production facilities. What was once a one-way street is now becoming a two-way street.

HIggins said it was a concern he had heard from LINK board members: is too much of the electrical infrastructure devoted to solar installations that are not big creators? jobs?

“Another way of looking at it as a pipe flowing back and forth,” Higgins said. “What you need to be careful of is how much this pipe can hold.”

The other concern is the scale of solar operations and caution in hiring massive sites which, unlike industry and industry, create few permanent jobs.

Initially, this was a concern shared by West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson.

“(The Origis factory) will occupy space that could normally be used for manufacturing,” said Robinson. “But it was a deal that won’t require investment for the local government and that will generate a lot of tax revenue, which is really important. For me, I realized that we still have land outside of our industrial part that we can use for manufacturing. I don’t think we would want to go all out in solar and I don’t think Joe Max would either.

None of the land chosen by Origis is located on one of the megasites designated by LINK for VAT, where local governments have invested heavily in infrastructure intended to recruit industries that create jobs. Local governments have no infrastructure investments in any of the solar projects, although they have approved replacement compensation agreements that will allow Origis to pay one-third of the normal property tax rate for the first 10 years.

“It’s a discussion we’ve had internally for about a year and a half,” Higgins said. “A board member asked, ‘Are we getting good arable land out of production? My answer was no. This is land that we have studied for industrial development and we have said that we are not going to use it. It is not part of our portfolio. “

Higgins said he doesn’t plan to work on many solar deals outside of those already in production or identified as possible sites.

“I think we’re getting pretty close to the limit there,” he said.

Complements, not competition

This does not mean that solar energy companies do not explore potential sites themselves.

A landowner in Noxubee County is among many who have received letters regarding a possible lease / purchase of land there.

“A lot of property owners have been approached,” said Janelle Good of Phillip Good Realty in Macon. “I don’t think anyone has bitten yet. Most important here at the moment is the land for row crops, especially cotton. “

Higgins said solar companies are actively searching for sites everywhere.

“There are other companies next to Origis looking for locations here in County Lowndes,” he said. “We heard from solar companies interested in our family land in Arkansas.”

This trend will only continue, Higgins said.

“You look at these solar projects and you see where it’s going,” Higgins said. “Years ago you see these little facilities, including the first one we got here County of Lowndes. That’s 1.6 megawatts. Now you see much bigger projects, 100 megawatts, 150 megawatts and more. “

In his view, the arrival of solar installations is seen better as a complement to manufacturing and industry rather than as competition.

“One of the things we talked to Origis when they first announced their first project in County Lowndes was the possibilities in Starkville and Clay County,” Higgins said. “At the time, we were working on deals with hyper-data companies like Facebook and Amazon. These companies love green energy. So when Origis arrived I thought, ‘This could play into what we’re doing. I rather like it. ‘ That’s where I told them about Oktibbeha County and Clay County.

While Higgins is not ruling out the possibility of entering into future solar contracts, the focus is on job creation.

LINK’s five-year plan aims to create 1,500 jobs paying more than $ 40,000, or an average of 300 per year.

“We’re definitely looking to create good paying jobs that raise the standard of living in our community and that’s something solar power doesn’t bring to the table,” Higgins said. “Solar adds something, but it’s only part of what we do. I don’t think that takes anything away from our main focus.

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