In Montgomery County, 800 rural acres will soon be home to a massive 350,000-panel solar array.
The project, a partnership between local utility company Alabama Municipal Electric Authority and Lightsource BP, will bring a large-scale, utility-sized solar development to the River Region. Utility leaders say several recent factors have made solar power a realistic energy source, and they expect others to follow suit shortly.
"Our mission is to provide low-cost reliable electric power to our member cities at the lowest possible cost that we can," said Fred Clark, president and chief executive of AMEA. "We search for economic resources and study those daily with a group of engineers that we have, both on staff as well as consultants that we reach out to."
That research yielded what AMEA believes to be a feasible and forward-thinking project in the solar field. The deal with Lightsource, a partnership itself under British Petroleum, will bring 100 megawatts of solar energy into AMEA's "energy portfolio."
Everything will be built and maintained by Lightsource, with AMEA only buying the energy and selling it to different municipalities and utilities in areas like Opelika and Tuskegee.
AMEA has 13 utility affiliates across the state, though none in Montgomery. The benefit for the county will be the over $5 million in property taxes to be collected over the lifetime of the project, which will go to Montgomery's cash-strapped school system.
"I am grateful that another company is investing significantly in Montgomery," said Montgomery County Commission head Elton Dean, in a written statement that was part of AMEA's press release. "This project will provide considerable support to Montgomery County schools, dollars the school systems otherwise would not receive."
A spokesperson for Alabama Power said in an email that the company had issued requests "for renewable projects to test the market on the viability of additional potential projects," of which the company is current reviewing.
PowerSouth said it is also looking at options to diversify while keeping prices low, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
"PowerSouth's mission is to safely deliver reliable, economical energy to its members in Alabama and northwest Florida. To accomplish this mission, PowerSouth uses a diverse energy mix that includes coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity and other renewable resources," according to the email.
It is the combination of a tax credit, and recent technological advances, which make large-scale solar projects feasible, Clark said. That tax credit will sunset, however, meaning that further adoption of similar projects may require further tech advancements to remain economically realistic.
The solar field will sit about 5 miles south of the Hyundai manufacturing plant, between Butler Mill Road and Highway 31.
It was originally delayed after protestations by some on the Montgomery County Commission over the use of a 20-year tax abatement, rather than a 10-year tax break.
Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Harris found that the group had erred procedurally when approving the abatement — Commisioner Doug Singleton joined him in his vote against it — and was able to temporarily reverse the decision.
Harris told the Advertiser previously that he believes "there should be at least a requirement on the number of jobs and the capital investment" on abatements of that length.
"I have never really criticized a vote that the commission has taken ... but this one was so blatantly unfair," he said at the time. "Some people are against paying companies to move into the state, this helps them with their argument against it."
The rarity of that abatement is in part due to a change in 2015, where the "Alabama Reinvestment and Abatement Act" expanded tax breaks to allow municipalities to grant 20-year abatements for certain qualifying projects. They are required to be brought to a vote in the city or county where the project resides.
For AMEA, Clark said the project represents a significant benefit for their customers, who will save between $40 million and $60 million over the project's life, the school system, and the state as a whole by bringing more green energy to the table.
"Industries want to see renewables in your state. We had the choice to be located 100 miles outsides of Atlanta, or we could locate something in Alabama, " Clark said. "The most economical (choice) was here in Montgomery County."