Mississippi community says: ‘Yes, in my backyard’ to solar

Clearloop Panola Solar Farm
Clearloop and Panola County leaders celebrate the first piles being driven for a large-scale solar project in Mississippi.

Residents in Panola County, Mississippi, are saying yes to solar. Clearloop, a subsidiary of Silicon Ranch, has been working closely with the community to develop a series of large-scale projects that are providing mutual benefits for the company, its customers and the surrounding region.

Panola County is a community at the cross-section of the Mississippi Delta and the Appalachian Foothills, and these projects will be the first solar developments for the area.

Clearloop broke ground on the first of three projects in Panola County last April, and followed that up in August with the announcement that Microsoft would be an anchor customer for the second project. The third solar project kicks off a multi-year collaboration between Vanderbilt University and Clearloop.

Combined, the projects will generate 18 MW and are being developed in collaboration with the Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association (TVEPA) and with the support of the local economic development group, the Panola Partnership. TVEPA is working with Clearloop and its parent company, Silicon Ranch, to bring locally generated, reliable renewable energy to the county for the first time ever.

Quick snapshot of the three Panola projects:

  • Panola I Solar Farm is a 6.6 MWdc project supported by Vista Equity Partners and 21 of their portfolio companies across the United States, as well as Uber, Oak View Group/GOAL, Infoblox, FarmHouse Fresh, Chicory Wealth, Goodr, Patch, Grandma Mae’s Country Naturals, Aether Diamonds, Rivian, and Material Bank. Completion is expected in summer 2024.
  • Panola II Solar Farm is also a 6.6 MWdc project backed by Microsoft. Building permits were granted in November, and construction is expected to be completed by summer 2024.
  • Panola III Solar Farm is a 4.8 MWdc project supported by Vanderbilt University. The project is expected to be completed in fall 2024.

Clearloop is planning to host a “flip the switch” event for Panola I and II in June.

Building support

A primary factor in the success of these projects has been the relationships that Clearloop has forged in Panola County. CEO and cofounder Laura Zapata credits the company’s early efforts to establish communication with area leaders.

“The biggest thing we were trying to figure out at the beginning, because this project was the first solar project in this community, was providing education for what we’re trying to accomplish,” Zapata said last fall. “We reached out to the economic development leaders about two years ago. We worked with Panola County to resolve any challenges, and we were able to do that because we had such a strong relationship with the people there. Everything from our introduction to the local power company to identifying land owners interested in selling land, it was important for us to know what was happening in the community, and we couldn’t have done that if we didn’t have boots on ground that early on.”

Zapata touts the strong support Clearloop received from the community.

“This is an exciting case where the people were saying, ‘yes, in my back yard.’ They embraced the idea right away,” she said. “Part of that support is because Silicon Ranch is dedicated to being a longtime operating partner in the area, and being neighbors for the long haul. Hopefully, that will lead to more opportunities.”

Clearloop worked with the community to help ensure the project looked nice from the passing highway.

“They wanted to have it fenced in nicely,” Zapata said. “It’s like a welcome mat to the community. It was kind of a different request, but it shows the cooperation we had and opens up more possibility to have more people interested in solar.”

Serving the community

Zapata described Panola County as an underserved community when it comes to solar, and expanding equitable access to clean energy is one of the driving forces behind the three projects. She pointed to Microsoft’s investment to highlight the attraction of solar projects for larger companies that have goals to decarbonize their operations.

“If we are going to decarbonize at scale, we need more of the country to see itself reflected in our efforts,” she said. “Microsoft has climate dollars to spend. Their investment helps elevate communities where Microsoft might not have operations, but now it has reasons to be connected to those communities because they have investments there.”

Overcoming NIMBY-ism

Zapata discussed the opposition that some larger scale solar projects are facing throughout the United States and what is driving those efforts.

“There is growing misinformation out there, but also a trust gap, where some people might have said they wanted to invest in a community, but they did not follow through,” she said. “We as an industry need to engage with communities. How does solar work? We need light, not heat. Basic things like that, to get back to basics and build trust through very simple outreach and education. The good news is that there are success cases to point to.”

While solar technology has been around for decades, the massive buildout of larger scale projects is new for many areas.

“We have a big opportunity in the solar industry in general to do more outreach,” Zapata said. “My idea is that to use a friend, you need to make one first. We need to reach out to folks beforehand to say this is what we’re going to do. There is a big education opportunity, because solar is new to a lot of areas, and it can be politicized in terms of what are the climate impacts as well as economic impacts. If we’re going to put investments into places that haven’t seen solar before, I think we have to talk less about big scary climate change, and more about the economic opportunities with solar.”

Zapata highlighted some topic areas that developers can discuss when engaging with communities.

“What is the project actually doing? How are we tending to land? How are taking care of the solar systems? There’s a big movement through land management practices to rejuvenate land,” she said. “Also, projects create construction jobs, but also opportunities for new careers in O&M, and all kinds of work involving the electrical trades. There is a pipeline for new careers for younger people in the solar industry if we do it right. There are opportunities for developers of all types where we can make a difference in these communities.”

Maintaining the relationship

As is the case with all Clearloop projects, the Panola Solar Farms will be developed, owned and operated by Silicon Ranch for the lifetime of the project. Clearloop will maintain a long-term vested interest in Panola County and the surrounding region.

“We’ve continued to strengthen our relationship and support with Panola County,” Zapata said. “In fact, last November, we hosted local leaders and neighbors as the first piles were driven into the ground for the first of three solar projects in their community.”

Attending the event were Brad Robison, CEO of the TVEPA; Kerry Davis, chief engineer of the TVEPA; Joe Azar, executive director of the Panola Partnership (economic development); Robbie Haley, director of Workforce, Panola Partnership; Cyndy Butler, TVEPA; Mississippi State Senator Nicole Boyd; Batesville, Mississippi, Mayor Hal Ferrell; Panola County board president Cole Flint; and leaders of West Camp M.B. Church

“Panola County, Mississippi, is very much a ‘Yes, in my backyard’ community for solar,” Zapata said, “and we hope it will be the model for many more communities that want to welcome the investment in their community and be seen as innovators.”

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