How my friend started a solar movement in the Free State of Jones

My friend from high school is doing something completely different that has the potential to really shake things up: He’s bringing solar power to a place that thrives on hydrocarbons.

Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones. Murray Close / AP Photo
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Matthew McConaughey starred in the movie Free State of Jones playing Newt Knight, the leader of a band of rebels that sabotaged Confederate soldiers during the United States' Civil War. Newt and his followers, known as the Knight Company, drove the soldiers out of Jones County in Mississippi, declaring it the Free State of Jones.

To this day, when you cross county lines, you see a sign that says just that – “Welcome to the Free State of Jones”.

Newt did something different, which is one of the most interesting stories from the Civil War, at least in my (biased) opinion.

And while my old Jones county classmate, Brett McKenzie, isn’t leading a band of rebels per se, he is doing something completely different that has the potential to really shake things up:

He’s bringing solar power to a place that thrives on hydrocarbons. In fact, Jones county pulls in the third-highest oil and gas revenue in Mississippi. And the state is actually the 14th-largest oil producer in the nation, according to data from the John C Stennis Institute of Government.

But two years ago, Brett did his first solar installation after several years of monitoring a market that just “wasn’t affordable”. His family company mainly deals in mechanical construction such as air conditioning and plumbing, but he decided to add solar to the firm’s portfolio, creating Southern Solar because it just made sense, he said.

His three-man team knew that they wanted to focus on poultry farms given that power is one of their top two expenses (both grid electricity and backup generation, including natural gas or propane). “I knew that if we could show them that you could cut out one of your biggest costs, that it would be a no-brainer,” Brett said.

But it’s sometimes hard to get people to think past what they know. Brett knew that if he just had one person that would give it a go, that more clients would follow. So he found a young poultry farmer who agreed to try out the technology. “We agreed to do it for him at cost just so we could use his power bills to show others that it really does works,” he said.

And it’s so far paid off, as not only has the company completed seven projects in just the past year, but staff size has also tripled. Brett added: “Once we had the first installation to show others, it began catching on pretty quick and we hope to double the amount of projects next year.”

An even larger market exists in the oil behemoth Saudi Arabia.

The direction of the kingdom's economy will mean fewer subsidies on fuel, and this could present an opportunity for applications such as solar-diesel hybrid solutions, since most poultry farms are not connected to the national grid. Browning Rockwell, a former executive director of Saudi Arabia Solar Industry Association, said in May that many of those farms were funded by the government or agricultural banks. And with the low oil price being a mainstay for the past two years, the source of funding was tight.

Just like in Brett’s case of seeing the interest increase after that first project, we’re seeing that same shift in the Arabian Gulf. A new wave of diversification strategies is taking form. All you need to do is look at country targets such as the UAE, where 30 per cent of its energy will come from renewables. Or see national oil companies, such as Saudi Aramco, further strengthening their renewable plans, including an agreement in September with Japan’s Showa Shell Sekiyu and Solar Frontier to conduct a feasibility study to produce solar panels in Saudi Arabia.

The point is, all you need is one. One person, one project, one government, one chance. One poultry farm.

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