It was a small act, really — just the flip of a switch.
But that action represents a new era of big things for Georgia. It’s an era that can trace its beginnings to what was conceived as a small cooperative solar project that grew and grew, ultimately catapulting Walton EMC into the national renewable energy spotlight.
Last December, co-op leaders joined representatives of Facebook, state and local officials and team members of solar project developer Silicon Ranch for a ceremony to activate the technology company’s first solar project in the state of Georgia. The 102.5 megawatt Bancroft Station Solar Farm is one of six announced facilities that Walton EMC will use to support Facebook’s data center in Newton County with 100 percent renewable energy.
“Less than two years ago, Facebook, Morgan Stanley and Walton EMC came together to design a landmark energy supply arrangement for Facebook’s Newton Data Center, and today marks an important milestone toward honoring the commitments we made,” Walton EMC CEO Ronnie Lee said.
How we got there
The story of how Walton EMC leaders found themselves sharing a stage with representatives of one of the world’s most innovative companies begins with the color green.
As a founding member of Green Power EMC, Walton EMC has long supported statewide projects that made power from green resources such as low-impact hydroelectric plants, biomass, landfill gas and solar to generate electricity. Five years ago the co-op took its commitment to renewable energy to a new level — and closer to home — with the launch of Cooperative Solar. The program allows co-op members to purchase blocks of solar electricity to offset energy produced from traditional fuels.
When Walton EMC announced plans to install a small solar collection site on land adjacent to its Monroe headquarters, the expectations for member participation were hopeful yet modest. What happened next surprised almost everyone associated with the project: The 750 available blocks of solar power sold out in a few days.
“Of course, we knew there was interest in solar power, but we had no idea just how great the demand would be until Cooperative Solar was announced,” admitted Greg Brooks, Walton EMC’s communications director. “Honestly, we were blown away by how fast the blocks were snapped up.”
A long waiting list of members wanting solar power prompted the co-op to install a second and third solar facility in quick succession. Today, only blocks at the third site remain available.
Blocks of Community Solar electricity are $25 each per month and available only to Walton EMC customer-owners. Get yours by calling 770-267-2505.
Member support resulted in Cooperative Solar becoming the largest solar project owned by an individual electric cooperative in Georgia. It is also one of the largest cooperative solar projects in the eastern half of the U.S.
These and other facts are what prompted Facebook to come calling when they began considering locations for a data center supported by 100 percent renewable energy.
“Our members can pat themselves on the back because it was their commitment to renewable energy that helped draw Facebook’s attention to Walton EMC,” said Brooks.
Facebook selected Walton EMC as its power supplier when the Newton Data Center, a nearly 1 million-square-foot complex near Social Circle, was announced in March 2018. Company officials cited the co-op’s reputation for energy innovation as a reason for the choice.
A few months later, the cooperative commissioned Nashville, Tenn.-based Silicon Ranch to develop a world-class solar power plant in Georgia to support the Newton Data Center. Bancroft Station Solar Farm is the first of six announced to become operational.
The opening of the Early County solar facility has broad implications. Renewable energy production is positioning Georgia as a more attractive place to do business, says Governor Brian P. Kemp.
“The world-class solar cells manufactured by Hanwha Q CELLS in northeast Georgia and installed at Silicon Ranch’s solar field in Early County are paving the way for leading companies with a focus on sustainability — like Facebook — to find a home in Georgia,” he said.
“…economic development partners like Walton EMC is a large part
of what has earned Georgia the title of No. 1 State for Business
for seven consecutive years.”
“That cooperation, facilitated by our outstanding local economic development partners like Walton EMC, is a large part of what has earned Georgia the title of No. 1 State for Business for seven consecutive years.”
Even before the Facebook facility is officially operational, the renewable energy project meant to support its energy needs is yielding tangible economic benefits across the state.
The total investment resulting from the six announced[CC1] solar projects that will support Facebook’s facility, under development by Silicon Ranch and Strata Solar, is expected to exceed $230 million.
More than 675 people, most of them Georgians, were employed in 2019 to assemble and install the components of Bancroft Station. Still more jobs were created at the Hanwha manufacturing facility where the project’s solar modules were made.
Construction for all six solar sites is projected to create more than 800 jobs, with additional employment for ongoing operation and maintenance. Local labor and local contractors will fill most of these positions[CC2] .
This economic boost comes in addition to the 100 jobs created and $750 million being invested by Facebook for the Newton Data Center.
Reaping the benefits
The combined Cooperative Solar and solar projects developed for Facebook have resulted in Walton EMC now leading all Southeast utilities in solar power development, according to a 2019 report by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Being number one has placed the cooperative and its solar power expertise squarely in the sights of other corporations committed to renewable energy.
Since the Facebook announcement, Walton EMC’s commercial energy advisors, Scott Walker and Keith Taylor have regularly fielded inquiries from retail, commercial and industrial developers interested in renewable energy. In recent months, the cooperative has welcomed new industrial members such as Nestle Pet Products and Amazon, which plan to power their new Georgia facilities with renewable energy.
The cooperative’s leadership in solar energy comes at an ideal time, according to analysis by business and accounting company Deloitte. For the first time ever, renewable energy outpaced coal as an electricity generation source in 2019, the report notes. Solar and wind together accounted for about 50 percent of total U.S. renewable electricity generation, displacing hydroelectric power’s dominance.
And that’s the story — so far — of how one small solar project has turned into a big deal for Walton EMC and Georgia. As a new era in renewable energy continues to unfold at the cooperative, look for more chapters to be added to this success story.