Update 2022: Situated in northern Georgia, near the Tennessee border, Dalton was historically renowned for its dominance in carpet manufacturing. Nevertheless, the city has diversified its portfolio and is now recognized as a global leader in floor coverings, manufacturing a wide range of materials such as hardwood, tile, laminate, and other products in the solar industry.
The Growth of Georgia’s Solar Industry
Last year, Dalton, Georgia made a significant move by investing $150 million in the largest solar panel assembly plant in the Western hemisphere, adding a new industry to its manufacturing mix. This investment is a clear indication of the booming solar industry in Georgia.
Interestingly, the growth of the solar industry in Georgia is not due to state-level mandates or public concern over climate change and greenhouse gases, unlike other regions in the country. Rather, it is driven by powerful market forces. The U.S. is the second-largest market for solar in the world, after China. The availability of cheaper and better solar technology, along with ample land and sunshine, has led to increasing demand for large-scale solar projects in the American Southeast.
According to Scott Moskowitz, director of strategy and market intelligence for Hanwha Q Cells America, the Southeast is set to become the largest region for solar installations in the next five years. In the Southeast, Georgia is second only to Florida, also known as the Sunshine State, in terms of projected growth. The projected growth of Georgia’s solar industry is compared to other Southeastern states with binding renewable mandates, non-binding renewable mandates, and no renewable mandates, measured in cumulative megawatts of installed solar capacity.
Why Georgia is a Bright Spot in the US Solar Industry
Mayor Dennis Mock stated that Hanwha, a company based in Seoul, South Korea, arrived in Dalton in early 2018 to establish a manufacturing plant. The company was aware that Dalton was a good place for manufacturing jobs, and as a result, they decided to establish their plant there. In May 2018, the then-Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, announced the opening of the plant, which was just four months after President Trump imposed a 30% tariff on solar panel imports.
Currently, the Dalton plant is operational 24/7 and employs 600 American workers who manage the high-tech assembly lines imported by Hanwha from Korea. The solar cells, which are responsible for converting sunlight into electricity, are also manufactured in Korea, and at capacity, the factory is producing 10,000 panels daily. While the cells are not subject to tariffs currently, a quota on their imports will likely be reached next year, and they may be subjected to tariffs.
According to Moskowitz, the tariffs have made Dalton the most attractive place to assemble panels for use in the US market, and the vast majority of these panels will end up in US projects.
The Hanwha Q Cells assembly plant in Dalton, Ga., assembles 10,000 solar panels a day. The factory was announced at the end of May 2018 and production began in January 2019. Hanwha Group
A new Facebook data center is currently being built in Newton County, Georgia, which is expected to use the same amount of electricity as a small-to-mid size city, despite its energy-efficient design. However, access to renewable energy at a competitive price is a crucial factor that brought Facebook to Georgia, as the company’s director of energy and infrastructure, Paul Clements, stated that they must have access to 100% renewable energy for their facilities.
Facebook has set a goal of reaching 100% renewable energy for all its operations by 2020, and Clements believes that they will achieve it. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports that the cost of installing solar has decreased by over 70% in the last ten years, making solar energy cost-competitive with traditional forms of energy such as natural gas.
Moreover, accessing renewable energy in new regions usually results in lower electricity rates than nongreen energy solutions. Walton EMC, an electric cooperative based in Georgia, is providing Facebook’s access to solar energy. While renewables currently make up less than 1% of Walton EMC’s energy production, that percentage is expected to rise to between 15% and 20% with the implementation of solar projects for Facebook. Other like-minded companies have also shown interest in Walton EMC. Because large solar farms are required to power a Facebook data center, land in northern Georgia is expensive, causing the solar boom to reach peanut, corn, and cotton country in Early County, Georgia’s farthest southwest corner.
A row of solar panels is installed at Silicon Ranch’s latest project outside Blakely, Ga. This 102.5-megawatt power plant will generate electricity for Facebook’s new data center in Newton County, Ga., 200 miles away. Johnathon Kelso for NPR
Around five years ago, solar developers expressed their interest in using large tracts of land near transmission lines in Early County, Georgia, to harness good sunlight. However, developers’ initial proposal to lease farmland for solar projects made landowners uneasy. But last year, a different offer emerged for Steve Singletary, who comes from a family that has owned land in Early County since the 1930s.
Silicon Ranch, headquartered in Nashville, wanted to buy 1,400 acres, approximately a quarter of Singletary’s family’s land, to build one of the solar farms that would power the Facebook data center located 200 miles away. Singletary admits that he was hesitant to see his family’s land go, but they ultimately took advantage of the golden opportunity since no one in his family farms anymore and they had been renting the land out to others. The terms of the offer seemed sound, and the money was good, Singletary added.
An aerial view of the construction site for Silicon Ranch’s new solar farm. The company is building around existing ponds and wetlands and will keep a vegetative barrier so that the solar panels will not be visible from the road.
Ron Vuocolo/Silicon Ranch
Absent from the discussion with Silicon Ranch was any mention of climate change. It wouldn’t have swayed him anyway.
“The world’s not coming to an end next week because of climate change,” Singletary says. “I’m just skeptical of the whole thing. To me, it’s played up way more than the effect it’s actually having.”
Had there been a golden opportunity to sell a piece of his land for a nuclear plant or a coal plant, Singletary says he probably would have taken that, too.
The transformation of his farm is happening quickly. The last crops were harvested in the fall of 2018, and several months later, construction crews moved in and began preparing the land for what will be 355,124 solar panels, shipped from Hanwha Q Cells in Dalton. The plan is to send power to the grid by the end of 2019. Already, steel posts rise from the ground in neat rows, and giant cardboard boxes holding stacks of solar panels dot the landscape.
Nick de Vries, vice president of technology and asset management for Silicon Ranch, says one of the beauties of solar is how fast it can all come together.
“You can build a large power plant … within a year,” he says. “Year over year, as we’ve matured, as we’ve industrialized, we are now able to deliver energy at very competitive prices.”
It also helps to have supply lines close by. De Vries, who worked on his first solar project in Georgia in 2013, says they used to ship materials from elsewhere in the country. That has changed with the opening of the Dalton assembly plant, among other suppliers that have cropped up in recent years.
“Now we can source more and more of the different parts that go into this construction locally — either from within the state or surrounding states. This shortens our lead times,” he says. “That’s important for business.”
Mike Newberry stands next to the center pivot irrigation system that waters his peanut crop. A fourth-generation farmer, he is the last in his family to farm. His only child, a daughter, has a career as a physical therapist. Johnathon Kelso for NPR
This project is bringing badly needed tax revenue to Early County, where the poverty rate is about 27%. June Merritt, chair of the Early County Board of Commissioners, estimates that $8 million will come into the county in the form of taxes over the next 25 years, which is a tremendous relief, she says. Of that, $5 million will go to the school system. Additionally, Silicon Ranch is providing college scholarships for students who want to pursue a career in the solar industry.
“There’s no downside. I don’t see how it could be,” Merritt says. “We don’t have pollution. We don’t have smell. You know, there’s just nothing. They’re just there.”
Mike Newberry is chair of the Early County Development Authority and a peanut farmer himself. And like Steve Singletary, he says people in the area don’t really think about where their electricity comes from.
He couldn’t care less, he says, laughing: “I want it the cheapest.”
At the same time, Newberry sees the new opportunities as encouraging. “There are people in industries who want [solar]. And if we can help them get their need, then it’s mighty good for us,” he says.
In neighboring Clay County, Newberry’s childhood friend Will Harris is convinced that turning farmland over to solar production doesn’t mean you have to take it out of agriculture entirely.
Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman and the owner of White Oak Pastures, sits in his office in downtown Bluffton, Ga. In earlier times, Harris sold fertilizers and pesticides. Today, he practices regenerative land management, restoring cycles of nature to land degraded by industrialized processes. Johnathon Kelso for NPR
Harris is also the rare farmer in the area who believes agriculture, solar and sustainability can go hand in hand. For the past two decades, Harris has been practicing regenerative land management on his farm, White Oak Pastures, which has been in his family since 1866.
When he learned about what Silicon Ranch was doing next door, he had an idea. The company would need to hire someone to take care of the land that they’d just purchased. Why not him, using regenerative farming techniques?
“We look for symbiotic relationships and this is one of them,” Harris explains. “You’ve got Silicon Ranch, who are wonderful technology people, who have figured out how to capture energy from the sun and put it through a wire. Those engineers, by their own admission, are not good land stewards.”
“Above those panels is their expertise. Below the surface of the soil is ours,” Harris says.
Harris and Silicon Ranch are putting together a plan to rotate animal species around the solar farm, possibly cattle and sheep. The animals would graze on grass and weeds and naturally fertilize the land with their manure. In between grazing periods, the land would have time to recover. Grazing in this way could prevent erosion and, down the road, potentially sequester carbon in the soil, as Harris has achieved on his own land. But it could take years.
“When they give us access to the land, it’s going to be really depleted,” Harris says. “We don’t know how much carrying capacity it’s got for a while. We don’t know what to expect down there.”
Will Harris stops to check on a herd of cattle on his farm, White Oak Pastures. The consulting firm Quantis conducted a carbon footprint evaluation of the farm and found its pastures could be capturing more carbon than its cows are emitting. When grass is allowed to grow on the pastures, it puts down deep roots, storing carbon in the soil that it draws out of the atmosphere. Johnathon Kelso for NPR
For now, the construction site remains dusty and dry. A water truck makes the rounds, spraying the ground with water to keep clouds of dirt from enveloping the workers when construction equipment rolls by.
Come back in six months, says Nick de Vries, and this place will be transformed.
“You will see a sea of glass, silicon and steel,” he says, looking out over this sunny, southwest Georgia landscape.
And soon after, if Will Harris has his way, acre after acre of healthy pasture, a sign of an ecosystem restored.