Rev. Steve Jamison stands in front of Maranatha Faith Center on Waterworks Road, where he has pastored for several years. He is proposing bringing a 2-megawatt solar farm to the area as part of the redevelopment of the neighborhood surrounding the former Kerr-McGee manufacturing site. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
May 3, 2018 11:21:25 AM
When the Columbus Light and Water board of directors meet on May 17, it will consider adopting a policy that may be the first step in bringing the first solar farm to the city.
For Rev. Steve Jamison, who has been one of the primary advocates in the community for rehabilitation of the former Kerr-McGee/Tronox site on 14th Avenue North that was closed for environmental contamination, the journey toward that goal is just beginning.
"At the best it could take anywhere from four to six years to see a solar farm actually in operation," said Jamison, pastor of Maranatha Faith Center, which in March was awarded almost $8 million in a bankruptcy settlement after creosote contamination was found on church property. Creosote is a toxic chemical once used to treat railroad cross ties, which Kerr-McGee and Tronox produced.
Since Tronox closed the facility in 2003, Jamison has been a vocal proponent for revitalizing his neighborhood, working through the labyrinth of the court system as the community near the site considers the best path forward for the site and nearby residents and landowners.
His solar farm idea, it turns out, may present a labyrinth of its own.
"This is going to be a long process," Jamison said. "You're dealing with a lot of obstacles, from (the Tennessee Valley Authority) to state and federal officials and agencies. For this to happen, we're going to need the support of our elected officials to help us develop this area."
The Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust, working alongside the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, is overseeing the cleanup of the 90-acre Columbus site, and more than 400 other Kerr-McGee sites in 24 states. The Trust uses money from the settlement of the federal lawsuit against the company to address high-priority environmental issues at the former sites. Columbus received $68 million for environmental actions around its former Kerr-McGee site.
Jamison's group, which is partnering with ForeFront Power of San Francisco on the project, has submitted its plan to the CLW.
"It's a general plan, basically laying out the project," Gale said. "It doesn't have a lot of details on the technical aspects of the plan."
At its April meeting, CLW discussed a new policy that will be needed to move forward with the solar farm plan, which is targeted for an area on the south side of the contaminated area.
Because the city has never been involved in a solar farm, Gale said CLW needed to adopt policies and procedures to evaluate the viability of the project. Gale said he expect the board to approve a policy for solar farms at its May meeting.
Utility companies cannot operate their own solar farms, Gale said.
"Under the TVA Act, we cannot generate or sell power," Gale said. "Whatever is produced there would have to be purchased by the TVA."
Instead, CLW's role will be tying into the solar farm and transmitting that energy through its lines, which is the role 4-County Electric Power Cooperative -- which serves rural areas in the Golden Triangle -- has performed for two years at two solar farms near the county's industrial park. Those two solar farms generate 1.6 megawatts.
Solar energy can power about 164 homes per megawatt, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association website.
Another hurdle will be convincing TVA to purchase the electricity generated by the solar farm, Gale said.
Each year, TVA determines how much solar energy it wants to include in its program and solicits projects from its partner power companies. The deadline for submitting those projects to TVA had passed before Jamison's group approached CLW, but the project can still be presented to TVA for consideration. Even if TVA rejects the proposal this year, the group can present the project next year through CLW.
"TVA won't accept proposals unless they go through the local power company," Gale said. "That's where we fit into the equation."
Gale said neither CLW nor TVA would move forward without the necessary studies and data that support the viability of the project.
"If it's a 2-megawatt project, we'd have to determine whether our lines could accommodate it," Gale said. "I can't speak for the board, obviously, but I doubt the board would want to put any money into this if our lines were adequate to handle that volume."
'A good fit'
Solar farms generate income, but they produce only a few jobs, mostly confined to general maintenance of the solar panels.
Even so, Jamison said, a solar farm is a good fit, given the circumstances.
"Cleaning up the property will take years and years," Jamison said. "It could take 40, 50 years for the site to be cleaned up to the point where it's suitable for residential development. In fact, some of the area may never get to that point. For industrial use, though, you're looking at far less time, maybe a couple, three years in some cases.
"For more than 10 years, the idea of using the site for solar power has been considered one of the best uses of the property," he added. "In a way, it's perfect. Solar power is clean and quiet. It doesn't have near the potential for negative affects on the surrounding neighborhoods that other types of industry might have."
While a solar farm could be the first project to come to fruition in the area, Jamison said he has no illusions about how long it will take to see the entire property put to productive use.
"For me, it's a legacy," Jamison said. "It's a start, but it's an important start."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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