HOUSTON • Chickasaw County is rapidly becoming known as the solar power county of north Mississippi.
Executives with Silicon Ranch were in town Monday and conducted a tour of the Houston Solar Farm just north of town. Members of Natchez Trace EPA, Three Rivers Planning and Development and the Houston High School solar car team were invited to the event.
Silicon Ranch built a $9 million, 30-acre solar farm just south of Okolona in 2014 and a larger $11 million 40-acre solar farm north of Houston in 2016. Combined they are one of the largest solar-powered electricity producers in north Mississippi.
“These two sites easily produce enough electricity to power 600 homes,” said Matt Brown, business development director for Silicon Ranch. “We have sites like this in 14 states. We will soon start work on a very large solar farm in Lauderdale County that will be the largest in the state.”
Brown said the Lauderdale County site is being built on 16th Section school property. He said the school district was renting that property to a hunting club for $5 an acre and will pay the district $155 per acre to rent 638 acres.
And that does not count the taxes solar farms pay.
In Chickasaw County one mill of tax raises approximately $82,000. Silicon Ranch pays $90,000 in taxes to county coffers every year. Chickasaw County road engineers estimate it costs them $52,000 to pave a mile of gravel road.
“We tell people we need flat acreage, not in a flood zone and close to a substation or three-phase power lines,” Brown said. “We have an agreement to sell power to TVA for 25 years and that is the current lifespan we have projected for our solar farms.”
And Silicon Ranch is also investing in more than solar power. They made a donation to the Houston solar car team that just got back from winning the National Solar Car Challenge for the 15th time.
“I know some of the technology that he was talking about from what I learned with solar car,” said Alex Ivy, crew chief for the solar car team. “He talked about AC and DC current and we use both. He talked about inverters, volts, amps and circuits. We learn all that working on Sundancer.”
Ivy, a junior at Houston High School said he wants to be an aerospace engineer.
Houston Electricity Technology instructor Jay Michael Alford said solar car students learn the lingo and deal with electricity on a much smaller scale than Silicon Ranch and the Houston Solar Farm.
“I think the best part is they saw what kind of jobs and what kind of technology is right here in Chickasaw County,” Alford said. “This tour gave them more of the big picture and this is not just wiring a house or solar car. The people who design, build and handle the maintenance on a solar farm like this are paid very well.”
Natchez Trace EPA General Manager Shawn Edmondson said the tour will help him look to the future.
“We have four substations in our service area and lots of three-phase lines,” Edmondson said. “Building relationships with the people who build solar farms is what economic development at Natchez Trace is all about.”
Three Rivers Planning and Development executive Gary Chandler said the Houston and Okolona solar farms show Chickasaw County can develop cutting edge technology and host high-tech industrial development.
“I was impressed with the tour and learned a lot,” Chandler said. “It was good to have Silicon Ranch executives back in Chickasaw County.”
Silicon Ranch is the largest developer, owner and operator of solar facilities in the TVA service area. It operates more than 24 locations with sites in Columbus, Okolona, Houston, Hattiesburg, Tupelo and New Albany.
The Houston solar farm is made up of 26,000 solar panels. It is located two miles north of Houston adjacent to a Natchez Trace Electric Power Association substation on Okolona Cutoff.
The project was developed by Three Rivers Planning and Development District in conjunction with TVA’s renewable energy program.