SYLACAUGA, Ala. – The United States hit over a million solar panel installations earlier this year according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. A few more panels will be added to that number as the Sylacauga Utilities Board is set to install solar technology in the Marble City for research. 

The Sylacauga Utilities Board will begin construction on a small-scale research project Monday, July 24, which will allow it to collect data on the advantages and disadvantages of solar panels which will play a role in the entity deciding to use solar on a much larger scale. Construction of the $100,000+ solar project has an expected early-August completion date.

The utilities board has looked at solar as an alternate power source for just over a year now, according to SUB General Manager Mitch Miller. He explained SUB is constantly searching for the ability to diversify its power supply which would be beneficial during power outages or other crises.  Solar power is just one way SUB is looking to diversify its supply of power to its customers.

“The biggest objective is about having a diverse power supply if research show solar will be an effective source,” Miller said. “The biggest benefit of a diverse power supply is that we will not be affected as much by droughts or price spikes in other power industries.”

The solar field, located at the intersection of Hwy. 511 and Highland Ave., will feature four rows of 40 solar panels on a .33 acre piece of land. The panels will be southwestern-facing to pick up the afternoon light. In terms of being a small operation, these panels will not be battery operated which would enable the panels to follow every second of day light. Also, fully operational solar fields take up thousands of acres of land as Miller explained.

While this is new for Sylacauga, many other cities have in the state are toying with the idea of solar energy. SUB is a member of the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority, an organization dedicated to researching and identifying cost-effective resources as part of our energy future. In the late 1970s, 11 Alabama cities formed a coalition to stabilize wholesale power supply costs, while sharing resources to meet mutual needs. In 2016, the organization began to implement solar research projects.

That year, AMEA Board of Directors approved a 50-KW solar research project to be placed at the AMEA headquarters facility, located at 80 TechnaCenter Drive in east Montgomery, near I-85. The AMEA Solar Research Project was completed in August 2016. Energy produced from the project is utilized by the adjacent headquarters facility. This project is very similar to Sylacauga’s.

Miller said he hopes to produce 50-kw of direct current (DC) and net 48-kw of alternating current (AC) due to the loss of power when converting from DC to AC. He explained the size of the project, if it had to, should produce enough energy to power six homes.

While SUB is hoping solar can be alternative power supply that will diversify its arsenal of energy, there could be some setbacks.

ROI, better known as return on investment, will take time if solar panels become broad scale due to the costs of installing solar panels and acquiring the land to build a large scale plant. “Solar power would probably be the most stable cost of alternate power sources, maybe not the cheapest but the most stable,” said John Ham. Ham is the financial director of SUB. “The initial cost is very high and your ROI will not be real quick. The price will be high, but you won’t see it fluctuate very much.”

Another setback will be cloud coverage. Solar panels are very prevalent out west where the skies are clear. Alabama has cloud coverage almost daily, creating the possibility of creating a level of power SUB is seeking.

How much data is SUB looking to collect from research on solar energy? Miller said SUB will conduct research as long as it’s necessary.

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