There is a lot of misinformation about the feasibility of solar energy in Mississippi and the South, says Will Hegman.

“It’s like the wild, wild West, in terms of the availability of solid facts about solar,” he said at the recent Mississippi event that was part of the American Solar Energy Society’s 2010 National Down on the Farm Solar Tour, the world’s largest grass roots solar event.

Now in its 15th year, the National Solar Tour features thousands of solar-powered homes, businesses, and public buildings.

“You hear all sorts of things — that Mississippi isn’t geographically suited to solar power, that solar systems are unreliable, that solar is just a fad, and on and on.”

But, says Hegman, who with his wife Carolyn, started their own business, Mississippi Solar LLC, to design, market, and install solar systems, the facts are that solar can be economically feasible for many Mississippi farmers and other commercial operations.

“The interest in solar is growing, and we’ve got a number of systems up and running, silently producing a reliable supply of electricity day-in and day-out.”

Technological advances, government assistance, the need for reliable power, and the growing urgency to reduce the use of fossil fuels is making renewable energy systems increasingly attractive, Will says.

System costs down

“Mass production has significantly reduced the price of systems and components, and the use of renewable sources such as wind, water, and sun increases our energy self-sufficiency and fosters economic and national security.

“With a solar system, you can provide yourself with protection against the rising prices of power, and state, local, and federal tax incentives and rebates can make purchasing a system more economical.”

Will, who is a retired corporate pilot (“I flew everything from World War II ‘Gooney Birds’ to Learjets”), and Carolyn, still employed as an American Airlines flight attendant on international routes (“I’m leaving this weekend for Montevideo, Uruguay”), moved to rural Leake County, Miss., near Carthage to be near her parents.

“The house we’re living in belonged to my aunt,” says Carolyn, “and Will, who’d had a lot of experience with solar installations on sailboats in the Caribbean going back to the 1980s, wanted to install a solar system in the house. But he couldn’t find anyone to do it.

“He started trying to get information on systems and what kind of agreements were available with power companies, and he’d come home just shaking his head. ‘So much of what they’re telling me is outright wrong,’ he’d say.

“So, we determined to start our own business, and he spent a lot of time attending classes and increasing his knowledge of current technologies and how they could be applied to businesses, residences, schools, etc. He has a real passion for this technology and the potential it has in Mississippi.”

“We’ve done a number of installations,” she says. “All are working efficiently, and as more people find out about solar, interest has grown. All our installations thus far have exceeded forecast projections for energy production.

Connect to power grid

“Most are connected to the power grid. We can do installations that are completely off the grid — that is, there is a battery system that stores power for nighttime use or when it’s raining/cloudy and power from the solar array is reduced. We recently did an installation for a fishing camp that is totally off the grid.”

The installation at the Hegman house is a pole-mounted 2.8 kilowatt array, producing direct current (DC), which inverters convert to 240-volt alternating current (AC).

Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee are the only three states in the U.S. that have no regulations for interconnecting solar arrays to the electric grid, Will notes, nor does it have net metering regulations that establish guidelines for individuals to be able to sell power to their utility company.

“The power generated by the solar array doesn’t directly power anything in our house,” he explains. “Rather, the current flows into the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) grid, where it is mixed with all their other electricity — whether from coal-fired or hydroelectric plants. We sell our solar power to them and we then get a credit from them against the electric bill for our house.

“It’s a simple system. TVA has been actively encouraging solar power, and under its Green Power Switch Generation Partners program, which was started in 2003 to provide incentives to users within its multi-state territory to adopt clean energy systems, they pay us 12 cents more per kWh for the solar power we sell them than they charge for the electricity we buy from them. They, in turn, purchase carbon credits to offset CO2 emissions from their coal-fired plants.

“In September, we received a check for $70 for our residence and a separate check for $245 for our shop for the excess energy we produced during the past year under TVA’s generation partners program. So, with our solar system we essentially covered all our electricity use for the past year, plus those rebates.”

Solar power is not a panacea for eliminating home electric bills, Carolyn notes. Outside the TVA territory, where electric rates are generally significantly higher and interconnection arrangements are less established, the economics would be different. For individuals, the systems are still relatively costly to buy and install, since some of the depreciation and tax breaks would not be available.

“For individual homes, the best dollars you can spend are still for insulation, weatherization, and power strips that allow you to completely turn off appliances such as TVs, DVRs, etc., when they’re not in use (even though they’re ‘off,’ most such devices still consume power in order to provide instant-on features).”

Payback timeframe

But for businesses, particularly in the TVA’s territory, the incentives could result in a payback of from six to 12 years before factoring any depreciation. The IRS allows rapid depreciation for solar, and some businesses have reported payback of less than five years with zero salvage value.

That could be the case for many of the state’s poultry operations, Carolyn says.

Poultry production is a major enterprise in Leake County and several surrounding counties; a Tyson poultry plant near Carthage processes some 2.5 million birds weekly and has 2,000-plus employees.

“Poultry farming is an energy-intensive business,” she says. “Enormous tunnel fans are required to ventilate the houses during the hot summers. Lighting adds to the energy costs.

“Solar can really change the life of a poultry farmer. Most poultry houses are oriented so they have a south-facing roof, which is optimum for capturing sunlight.

“We did a study showing that if all the estimated 8,000 poultry houses in Mississippi installed solar arrays, that industry alone could offset 10 percent of the state’s electrical use from conventional generating plants.”

A 48-panel solar array at nearby Pope Farms has resulted in significant savings in electricity costs for the poultry operation, and owner Spencer Pope is planning to add another 180 panels.

Solar systems can cut costs for other agricultural operations — boat houses, horse barns, and a wide variety of applications, Will says. In addition to potential savings on energy costs, the systems help reduce environmentally-harmful carbon emissions.

Something for everyone

“Today’s solar technology has improved to the point that there’s something for everyone,” he says. “It’s a job-building, money-saving, clean energy alternative whose time has come.”

One of the installations at the Hegman house is a garage with a solar array and a battery storage system. This arrangement could be used to recharge an electric automobile, such as the Nissan Leaf, which is being built in Tennessee and will be on the market later this year. It could also be used for people with critical power needs, such as medical equipment that must operate even if the electricity goes off.

Prior to designing a system, Hegman does a site survey to determine the power generating capability throughout the year at that specific location.

“These are quite accurate, and we haven’t designed a system yet that failed to meet or exceed the projections. Thirty years of weather data for the location is factored into design projections.”

While the Hegmans are in the business of solar, Carolyn notes, “We’re also in the business of educating people about the technology. We don’t have children, but we wanted to give something back to the community and to increase awareness of solar energy in young people.

“We gave a solar array to the Northwest Rankin School, which is not only offsetting a portion of their energy but could provide learning opportunities for the students. Now, they have their own Solar Energy Day each year.”

John Wilbanks, who conducts energy audits for businesses and others interested in alternative energy systems, installed a Mississippi Solar 1.7 kWh system at his residence at Mathiston, Miss., and says it offsets about $55 per month of his electric bill. His panels are ground-mounted.

Reliable, trouble-free

“I believe in this technology and have been very pleased with its reliable, trouble-free performance,” Wilbanks says. “The nice thing about it is that you can start small, with just a few panels, as I’ve done, and keep adding modules to increase your electricity output.”

While the TVA has been actively encouraging the adoption of solar technology, Wilbanks says the economics may not be as attractive in areas served by private electric companies, and that some private companies “have not been exactly enthusiastic or cooperative” about solar installations.

Safety concerns are always foremost, he says. “The utility company doesn’t want somebody putting up a mail-order solar system and expect them to tie it into their grid. They want to be certain systems are properly designed and installed and that there are no potential safety hazards.”

Other solar demonstrations on the tour included one by Don Stokes, representing Dr. John Guyton and the Adams 2XP School at Mississippi State University, featuring a “simple, efficient” solar hot water heater and a solar-powered Stirling engine.

“The Stirling technology has been around for almost 200 years,” he notes. “Using a solar collector to supply the heat to operate it makes very efficient use of what can be a very powerful engine.”

The Rev. Dr. Robert Stirling applied for the first patent on his engine in 1816. The modern Stirling engine, in addition to being efficient and very quiet, is also environmentally clean, because the heat that drives the pistons is supplied from outside the engine and transferred through heat exchangers to the pistons.

“This allows the engine to operate on many types of fuel — propane, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, ethanol 85, biodiesel, or heat from the sun, as we’re doing here,” Stokes says.

Solar race car

Also on hand was the award-winning solar race car team from Choctaw Central High School, the Choctaw Tribal School System.

Their car, Tushka Hashi (“Sun Warrior” in Choctaw) III, won the Hunt-Winston Solar Car Challenge race from Texas Motor Speedway to Boulder, Colo., a distance of 853.5 miles, which was traveled in just over 27 hours, at an average speed of 34.73 mph (the car can hit 70 mph).

This earned the team the national championship and a chance to participate in the World Solar Car Race in Australia, as well as extensive newspaper, radio, and TV coverage along the race route.

The car, which weighs 1,316 pounds and is covered with 480 photovoltaic modules, went 3 percent farther and 9.5 percent faster than the second fastest car in the race.

The team is now raising funds for travel to Australia, and Advisor Frankie Germany says the program has created “tremendous interest” in science and technology at the school.

“Interest in the solar industry is cooking,” says ASES National Tour Manager Richard Burns. “The Down on the Farm Solar Tour is a great way for folks to see for themselves the innovative technologies available to harness the sun’s energy, to learn how solar works, how it’s installed, what it costs, and how Mississippi businesses and property owners can realize big tax credits while supporting local small businesses."