GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – A proposed solar farm in George County is about two years away from any construction work, developers say.

Representatives from Pine Gate Renewables (PGR) in Asheville, N.C. were in Rocky Creek and Lucedale over the past week to meet with community members about the project.

About 60 people attended an informational session on Thursday, Feb. 23 to ask questions about the project, called Sunflower Solar. Project managers told attendees George County has a number of desirable factors that attracted the company.

“We have a unique opportunity here where there is a congruence of good interconnection points for utility transmission. We have good land owners and we have a good community that’s receptive to this project,” said project permitting manager David McGlothlin.

The proposed development will include 800 acres in the Rocky Creek community between the stockyard and elementary school, mostly west of Jessie Smith Road, northeast of U.S. 98 and north of Old Mobile Highway, bordering Lloyd Eubanks Road.

Most of the land under agreement is undeveloped cropland and pasture land for cattle; some portions are wooded. A few storage buildings would be removed. The only other structures are the foundation of a partially demolished home and neighboring swimming pool.

About 600 acres of the land will be used to install the infrastructure, a field of 79-megawatt solar panels standing no more than 10 feet high. The rest of the land will be used to secure the area and create a buffer between the field and roads or homes. Developers said they plan to use the public comments to fine-tune the design.

“Adjustments may include larger setbacks, vegetative buffers, and revisions to portions of the project design based on community input,” said PGR external affairs director Kristen Beckham. “Sunflower Solar is approximately two years away from construction, so this week was a critical milestone in the project’s development to ensure that the project team is making thoughtful revisions to the design based on feedback from the Rocky Creek community.”

The total footprint has already scaled back from a proposed 1,000-acre area when the company asked the state Public Service Commission for preliminary approval in July 2022. 

Expected costs, however, have increased. The company says start-up costs will be about $115 million for construction, a $33 million increase from estimates given to the state last summer.

“The primary cost drivers are the substantial increases in materials and shipping costs, increasing labor costs fueled by high inflation and shortage of qualified labor, and overall supply constraints as a result of increasing demand for renewable energy and global supply chain challenges,” Piper Miller, Pine Gate’s vice president of market development, told the PSC in November.

Project managers said they were also using their time between meetings in George County to consult with area businesses that may be able to provide labor and supplies for construction, and mowing when the project is complete. The company anticipates using 300 construction workers and two or three full-time jobs when the field is finished.

Pine Gate says it plans to operate the Rocky Creek facility for the full 40-year lifespan of the panels and most of the building materials: steel, aluminum, copper, and silicon are recyclable.

“Typically, what’s projected at the end-of-life for a project is that everything comes out of the ground. So one of the benefits of solar is you can essentially remove all infrastructure and return the site to its previous condition,” McGlothlin said.

The electricity output would be able to power 14,250 homes, the company said. It would connect to the Mississippi Power grid, although an agreement between PGR and the utility company has not been finalized.

Any change for electricity rates to customers would be determined by Mississippi Power.

“I can say [solar] is one of the most cost competitive forms of energy production on the market right now. It’s not relying on commodity pricing or commodity values to be determined in the future,” McGlothlin said. “And it’s emissions free energy, which is huge.”

Pine Gate is asking for an initial tax abatement on the property with undisclosed terms, but McGlothlin said development would likely move forward whether it is granted or not. 

A few county supervisors attended Thursday’s town hall and an event on Wednesday where company representatives presented donations to community organizations:

  • $2,500 to Rocky Creek Volunteer Fire Department
  • $2,000 to Rocky Creek Elementary School
  • $2,000 to George County Schools Dyslexia Program
  • $2,000 to George County Chamber of Commerce for Operation GC Christmas and Explosion of Excellence Scholarship program
  • $1,500 to Boy Scouts, Pine Burr Area Council
Members of the Rocky Creek Volunteer Fire Department accept a $ 2,500 check from Pine Gate Renewables on Wednesday, Feb. 22.

Pine Gate Renewables has two projects currently under construction in Mississippi at 78 MW AC each. It currently operates 85 solar projects across the U.S.

The Sunflower Solar project in Rocky Creek is scheduled to begin construction in 2024 and be operational by 2026.

Hand-out provided at the Sunflower Solar informational session: