Facebook Closes Record 200MW Solar Deal With Georgia Co-Op

Georgia’s Walton Electric Membership Corporation (EMC)
revealed contract details this week for three solar projects that
will supply a Facebook data center in the state. Silicon Ranch —
where Shell holds a majority stake — will supply 102.5 megawatts
and Strata Solar will build the other 100 megawatts, adding up to
202.5 megawatts in total capacity.  

The deal is unique for several reasons. Though the Walton EMC
projects rank third largest among renewables projects from a U.S.
co-op, the projects are the largest from a distribution co-op. The
partnership is also the largest of its kind with a corporate
partner. 

“It is unusual because of its size, but we’re seeing more
and more projects like this with our co-ops,” said Tracy Warren,
a spokesperson for the National Rural Electric Cooperative
Association (NRECA). “We’re seeing a lot of innovation in terms
of how these programs get structured. But the cooperatives, because
they are member-owned, are working collaboratively with their large
C&I members to help meet their corporate sustainability
goals.” 

So far in 2018, co-ops have transacted for more than nine times
the solar energy they did in 2013, according to NRECA. The average
co-op solar project has also grown to over 1 megawatt, from 25
kilowatts five years ago. 

Colin Smith, a senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power
& Renewables said the “non-traditional” Facebook deal
confirms the potential of a trend he expects to grow, with co-ops
acting as an intermediary for large commercial and industrial
offtakers. 

“Cooperatives are non-profits, so they don’t stand to gain
anything monetarily. They tend to be very conscious of their
consumers and their customers because they’re cooperative. The
customers are their ruling party — it’s a mini-democracy,”
said Smith. “From that standpoint, it’s a very interesting move
that we see Facebook working with a cooperative rather than the
dominant IOU in this territory.” 

That dominant investor-owned utility is Georgia Power. Smith
said securing the deal would likely have been lucrative for the
utility, but Facebook made a “very conscious decision” to
choose a co-op. Georgia Power did not respond to comments regarding
the choice of Walton EMC prior to publication.

In Georgia, co-ops, IOUs and municipal utilities jointly own the
transmission system. Greg Brooks, a Walton EMC spokesperson, said
that means Georgia Power has no involvement in the project.

According to Brooks, Facebook appreciated that the co-op was
non-profit, customer-owned and community-oriented.

“We’ve always been able to serve C&I customers and
provide the services they need,” he said. “Facebook, being an
innovator and progressive, they recognize that.” 

Melanie Roe, a spokesperson at Facebook, said the tech company
liked that Walton EMC is an important part of the community where
the data center is located. 

“We are committed to the communities that host us and part of
that is working to bring additional investment to these
communities, including new renewable energy resources,” Roe said in
an email. 

Walton EMC has about 130,000 customer accounts. About 93 percent
are residential, while the remaining 7 percent are commercial
customers.  

The 202.5 megawatts of projects, though Walton EMC will not
actually own or operate them, will add significant solar resources
to the utility’s portfolio. Walton EMC currently has about 6.5
megawatts of solar on its system, which goes to residential
customers. In the future, Brooks said the co-op plans to add as
much as its wholesale power provider, Morgan Stanley, allows.

According to Walton EMC, the solar projects will be a boon to
the area’s economy. Notably, corporates are starting to locate
projects closer to demand. That could mean more renewables in the
Southeast, where cheap power has been a draw for data
centers. 

Roe at Facebook said the company strives “to make sure these
projects are on the same electric grid as the data centers they
serve.” Roe pointed to a map
that shows the local renewables projects supporting Facebooks’ data
centers around the country. The company is also working
with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to power a data center in
Alabama with renewables.  

TVA has also worked with Google for data centers in
Alabama
and Tennessee that will run on renewable power. In
September, five tech companies including Salesforce and eBay
pushed
back against Dominion Energy’s proposal to build more natural gas
in Virginia because companies there increasingly want to power data
centers with renewable energy.  

“These sustainability goals are often a part of a
corporation’s decision on where it might relocate, or where it
would locate a new facility,” said NRECA’s Warren.

Smith said the draw of co-ops may also push more and more
corporate renewables projects into smaller communities. 

“This might be a model that would really attract big
corporations out into what are typically underserved communities
that were not necessarily as advantageous for IOUs to build
into,” said Smith. “A lot of the time you see cooperatives and
municipal utilities exist is because it’s in a region that
otherwise wouldn’t be served power. It’s not financially
beneficial for IOUs to run lines out to a relatively small
load.”

Warren said co-ops building out more solar is a result of demand
from consumer members. The trend has also been helped along by the
decline in solar costs.

She pointed to other examples: like in Minnesota, where McLeod
Cooperative Power and Great River Energy supply packaging company
Tetra Pak with renewable energy credits, and in Arkansas, where a
12-megawatt project
contracted through Ouachita Electric Cooperative serves defense
contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne. Silicon Ranch developed the Arkansas
project as well, and it’s created 225 new jobs in the
state. 

“We’re seeing more and more of that,” she said.
“Certainly our generation and transmission cooperatives want to
be cooperative to the needs of any large commercial members.”

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
Facebook Closes Record 200MW Solar Deal With Georgia Co-Op