West Baton Rouge Solar Panel

The Capital Region solar plant construction is underway in West Baton Rouge. Once completed, Entergy Louisiana is expected to buy power from the 50 megawatt plant. 

Some 197,000 solar panels capable of powering thousands of homes are going into one of the largest solar plants to be built in Louisiana on a 560-acre site near Port Allen.

Capital Region Solar started construction this week on the project. Entergy Louisiana will be purchasing power from the solar farm for 20 years after it is completed in second-quarter 2020. It is expected to save Entergy Louisiana customers $29 million over 20 years, the company says.

“Louisiana is undergoing tremendous growth and we need to be ready to deliver low-cost, diverse energy sources to help sustain that growth,” said Philip May, CEO of Entergy Louisiana.

"The economies of scale has finally kicked in," said Joshua Pearce, director of the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology lab. "Utilities are actively putting in large-scale solar farms because it's now a low enough cost. When costs first came down, large industry jumped on it first and now utilities are catching up."

Construction costs for the plant were not disclosed but a planned solar farm of similar size in northwest Louisiana is projected to cost about $78 million. The plant near Port Allen will generate 50 megawatts of power.

The Solar Energy Industries Association says one megawatt of solar power is capable of powering 190 homes on average, which means a 50-megawatt solar farm may provide power for 9,500 homes. In Louisiana, the average home uses more electricity than any other state in the U.S., so that same megawatt of power only stretches to 100 homes, so perhaps the plant will power closer to 5,000 homes.

Another benefit is environmental since the clean-energy solar farm is projected to offset the equivalent of 19,000 passenger vehicle emissions each year. 

The plant is under contract with Depcom Power, an Arizona-based solar farm construction company. Depcom Power is providing engineering, procurement and construction in addition to operations and maintenance for the solar farm owned by Eagle Solar Group LLC. About 350 jobs will be supported during construction. The project is expected to add $6.4 million in tax revenue over a 30-year period, according to Depcom Power. The solar construction company said it expects to hire local residents, especially U.S. veterans.

Entergy has been growing its share of solar for the past few years as it adds to a portfolio of about 190 megawatts of renewable resources, which includes hydro, biomass and waste heat recovery. The utility company has more 1 million electric service customers and said that there's been an uptick in demand for electricity. 

In 2016, Entergy New Orleans, a sister company of Entergy Louisiana, built a one megawatt pilot solar plant that had 4,200 solar panels on the East side. 

In February, Entergy New Orleans completed a 2.5 megawatt solar farm perched on the roof of warehouses near the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, with plans to expand that to 5 megawatts but a goal to reach 20 megawatts on commercial rooftops across the city.

Now Entergy New Orleans is building a $42 million solar farm that will generate 20 megawatts of power on the East Side of the city. Entergy New Orleans also plans to purchase 50 megawatts of solar power from a new facility slated to be built in Washington Parish on LSU AgCenter property and 20 megawatts of power from a new solar facility in St. James Parish.

The cost of producing solar power at utility-scale plants has declined precipitously in the past decade. There was an 86% drop since 2009, according to research conducted by Lazard, a global financial advisory and investment management firm.

Utility-scale renewable energy projects are considered to be those which produce at least 10 megawatts of power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. 

In 2009, the cost to produce one megawatt of solar was $350 but by 2013 the cost dropped below $100 per megawatt and in 2017 to $50. That compares to $102 per megawatt for coal. Nuclear power cost $148 per megawatt whereas natural gas cost $60 and wind cost $50 for the same amount of power. 

The cost to produce solar power has declined because manufacturers of solar panels have been able to scale operations to produce one gigawatt — or one billion watts — of panels each year. And not just production overseas. A new solar panel manufacturing plant capable of producing 1.7 gigawatts of solar panels each year owned by South Korean business Hanwha opened in Dalton, Georgia, in January. 

The Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology lab estimated that it would take about 1,544 gigawatts of solar power to replace all fossil fuel production on the U.S. electric grid. For most of the U.S., solar is the cheapest renewable option to produce electricity, according to the academic lab.

"Utilities are in a dangerous position right now. For what they are selling electricity for, residents would save money by putting solar on their roof," Pearce said.

In Louisiana, more than 80 megawatts of residential solar was installed across the state between 2014 and 2019 as of first quarter, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.