Note: We're starting a new, feature in this business section called 5 Questions. We'll be asking various people involved with business in Walton County five questions about what they do, how they do it, and the challenges they face. We hope you learn something. First up, Walton EMC CEO Ronnie Lee.
Walton EMC has been a fixture in Walton County and the surrounding areas for decades. The company first brought electricity to rural farmers in the region in the 1930's, and has over 129,000 customer owners today. The company is a co-op, meaning customers elect their board of directors and technically own the company.
Recently, Walton EMC has made a shift toward solar generated power and will be providing the electricity to run the Facebook data center at Stanton Springs.
Walton Tribune: Where does all your power come from?
Ronnie Lee: The energy sources used to generate electricity in Georgia have dramatically changed in recent years. No longer is coal our major electricity generation fuel. Natural gas is now the major fuel source, used to generate about 60 percent of Walton EMC’s power. The advances in collecting natural gas have made this possible at a reasonable price. Nuclear energy, which doesn’t contribute to greenhouse emissions, is second at around 25 percent. Although coal is now used to produce less than 10 percent of our power, huge improvements have been made at the remaining coal plants in cleaning what’s left over from the combustion process.
About five percent of our electricity is generated from hydro sources like Buford Dam on Lake Lanier. Renewable sources, like solar, are rapidly gaining ground and we’ve been a leader in implementing solar energy into our power mix. Although it’s a small percentage right now, solar may grow to as much as 20 percent of our portfolio when Facebook’s Newton Data Center and the associated solar generation are complete and online.
WT: What factors go into deciding how much power costs?
RL: There are many factors that go into calculating the energy portion of your power bill. The cost of the raw material itself, like natural gas or coal is one factor. The second is the cost of the facility that produces the energy. In the case of solar energy, the raw material is free, but there is a cost to build the solar plant. The rate at which we use power is a big component of the cost. The more we demand electricity all at once, like a hot summer day, the larger the size of the plants needed to meet that demand and the higher the demand charge.
For the total cost of your power bill, add to those things to the cost of getting the electricity to the consumer. There are wires, poles, all the devices it takes, like substations, and maintaining all those things. There are costs to providing customer service, accounting and producing the actual bill itself. There are linemen who put the wires back up after a storm. All of these components and more go into making up your total energy costs.
WT: Why did you decide to move toward solar power a few years ago?
RL: It’s what our customer-owners asked for. Many of them want to participate in producing renewable energy, but have practical barriers that stand in the way of putting solar panels on their house. For example, many homeowners don’t want to cut their beautiful shade trees. Many more live in developments that prohibit solar panels. Some live in rental property where landlords don’t allow it. Others don’t want the high upfront cost and maintenance headache of owning their own solar system. Our cooperative solar program is the perfect answer. At an affordable monthly cost, they can have a part in producing renewable energy no matter what their circumstances.
WT: What are the biggest challenges with creating and distributing solar power?
RL: The biggest challenge with producing solar power right now is what you do when the sun isn’t shining. Solar panels don’t produce power when it’s dark or cloudy, but we still need electricity during those times.
That’s why we can’t do without traditional power generation sources, like nuclear plants. Solar energy is absolutely part of the answer to our energy needs, but at the same time, it’s not the total solution.
Unfortunately, storing the solar power for use during the night isn’t economical right now. Battery technology is rapidly advancing, but is still a few years away.
WT: How were you able to win the Facebook contract?
RL: We won the Facebook Newton Data Center electricity load because Walton EMC was able to give them what they wanted.
Facebook asked for an innovative renewable energy supply agreement. Through our hard work, flexibility and partner relationships, we structured the arrangement to fit their needs. We are also able to meet their timetable.
Facebook liked working with us because we’re customer and community focused.
They notice that we’re active in supporting our communities and want to associate with companies who do that.