In North Georgia, near the Tennessee line, the city of Dalton made its fame as the carpet capital of the world. These days, a more accurate title will be flooring capital in the world. It has spread in hardwood, tile, laminate and other materials.
And in a big move last year, Dalton added a new industry to its production mix: the largest solar panel installation in the Western Hemisphere, an investment of $ 150 million.
This is just one sign that solar energy in Georgia is flourishing.
And that's not the reason you can expect. Like most states in the Southeast, Georgia does not have the type of government mandates that have driven the growth of renewable energy in other parts of the country. Nor is it due to a basis for public concern about climate change or the need to curb greenhouse gases.
Instead, there are strong forces at work. The United States is the second largest market for solar energy in the world, after China. Always cheaper and better solar technology, available land and lots of sunshine are driving the demand for massive solar projects across the US Southeast.
"This is the largest region for solar installations over the next five years," said Scott Moskowitz, director of strategy and market intelligence for Hanwha Q Cells America.
Don't you see the graphics over? Click here.
The headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Hanwha appeared in Dalton in early 2018, said Mayor Dennis Mock. "They knew we were good at producing jobs and many of them," he says.
Georgia's da-Gov. Nathan Deal announced the plant in May 2018, four months after President Trump imposed a 30% tariff on solar panel imports. The plant started shipping panels in February 2019.
The Dalton plant operates today 24/7, with 600 US workers operating high-tech assembly lines imported by Hanwha from Korea. Solar cells – those parts that actually convert sunlight into electricity – are also produced in Korea; they are not currently subject to tariffs, but will probably be soon. The factory now uses capacity, and the factory now collects 10,000 panels a day.
"The tariff has made it currently the most attractive place to mount panels for use in the US market," says Moskowitz. "Most of these will end up in US projects."
One of the projects is a new Facebook data center under construction in Newton County, Ga., About 45 miles east of Atlanta. Data centers represent more than 90% of Facebook's energy needs, says Paul Clements, the company's energy and infrastructure director, and even with an energy-efficient design, this is expected to use the same amount of power as a small to mid-range
Access to renewable energy for a competitive Price is a big part of what brought Facebook to Georgia, Clements says.
"We must have access to 100% renewable energy for our facilities. Unable to achieve that, we will not find in that region," he says.
In fact, Facebook has set a goal to reach 100% renewable energy for all its business in 2020, and Clements expects it to come there. (To be clear, "100% renewable" is measured on an annual basis, not an hourly Facebook renewable energy contract than it expects to spend on a year.)
The cost of installing solar energy has fallen by more than 70% over the last decade, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. With the dramatic fall in price, solar energy is now competitive with traditional energy forms, even natural gas. 2006 has also been useful.
"We have found that when we enter new regions and have access to renewable energy, we can typically achieve lower electricity tariffs than we would through a normal non-green energy solution," Clements says.
In Georgia, the company that provides Facebook access to solar power, Walton EMC, is an electrical partnership outside Monroe, Ga.
Walton EMC was as recently as 2010 dependent on coal for almost half of its energy production. Now natural gas is the dominant source. Renewable energy represents a small fraction – less than 1% of the mixture. But with solar projects coming online for Facebook, renewable energy will jump to somewhere between 15% and 20%, according to Greg Brooks, Walton EMC's Social and PR Director.
And all signs point to continued growth. As a word of the Facebook agreement has expired, Brooks says, Walton EMC has received inquiries from other like-minded companies.
Many countries are needed for solar farms that are large enough to operate a Facebook data center. And land in North Georgia is expensive. As a result, the sun boom reaches Early County in the world's furthest southwestern corner – peanuts, corn and cotton land.
Johnathon Kelso for NPR
County employees first received a word of interest from solar cell developers about five years ago. Solar companies had used historical data to find out where they could get good sunlight on large land areas near transmission lines. In the beginning, developers offered to rent agricultural land for solar projects came up with a proposal that made landowners unfamiliar with the industry uneasy.
So last year, Steve Singletary, whose family owned land in Early County since the 1930s, got another kind of offer, one he couldn't turn down. Nashville-based Silicon Ranch wanted to buy 1400 acres, about a quarter of the family's land, to build one of the solar power plants that would drive Facebook data center, 200 miles away.
"Hate to see it go," Singletary says, "But things change, and it was a golden opportunity. So we took advantage of it." The time was right, he explains, since no one in his family goes anymore – they had rented the land to others. The money was good and the conditions seemed solid, he says.
From the discussion with Silicon Ranch, some mention of climate change. It wouldn't have failed him anyway.
"The world does not come to an end next week due to climate change," Singletary says. "I'm just skeptical about it all. For me it's been played more than the effect it actually has."
Had it been a golden opportunity to sell a piece of their land for a nuclear power plant or a coal plant, Singletary says he would surely have taken it too.
The transformation of his farm happens quickly. The last crops were harvested in the fall of 2018, and several months later the crews moved in and began preparing the land for 355,124 solar panels sent from Hanwha Q Cells in Dalton. The plan is to send electricity to the grid at the end of 2019. Steel posts are already rising from the ground into neat rows, and giant cardboard boxes hold stacks of solar panels dot the landscape.
Nick de Vries, vice president of technology and property management for Silicon Ranch, says one of the beauty of solar energy is how fast it can come together.
"You can build a large power plant … within a year," he says. "During the year, as we have matured, as we have industrialized, we are now able to deliver energy at very competitive prices."
It also helps to have supply lines nearby. De Vries, who worked with his first solar project in Georgia in 2013, says that they used to send material from elsewhere in the country. It has changed with the opening of Dalton's assembly plant, including suppliers that have upgraded in recent years.
"Now we can source more and more of the various parts that go into this construction locally – either from the state or surrounding states. This shortens our lead times," he says. "It's important for business."
This project brings very rich income tax to Early County, where the poverty rate is about 27%. June Merritt, head of the local council commissioner, estimates that $ 8 million will be taxed in the county over the next 25 years, which is a huge relief, she says. Of that, $ 5 million will go to the school system. In addition, Silicon Ranch offers college scholarships for students wishing to pursue a career in the sun industry.
"There are no disadvantages. I do not see how it can be," says Merritt. "We don't have pollution, we don't smell. You know, it's just nothing. They're just there."
Mike Newberry is the head of the Early County Development Authority and a peanut farmer himself. And like Steve Singletary, he says people in the area don't really think about where their electricity comes from.
He couldn't care less, he says, laughing: "I want the cheapest."
At the same time, Newberry sees new opportunities as encouraging. "There are people in industries that want [solar]. And if we can help them get their needs, then it is powerful for us," he says.
In nearby Clay County, Newberry's childhood friend Will Harris is convinced that turning farmland over to solar production doesn't mean you have to take it out of agriculture altogether.
Harris is also the rare farmer in the area who believes that agriculture, sun and sustainability can go hand in hand. Harris has in the past two decades practiced regenerative land management on his farm, White Oak Pastures, which has been in his family since 1866.
When he learned what Silicon Ranch did next, he had an idea. The company needs to hire someone to take care of the land they just bought. Why not he, using regenerative farming techniques?
"We are looking for symbiotic relationships, and this is one of them," Harris explains. "You have Silicon Ranch, which is great technology people, who have figured out how to capture energy from the sun and put it through a wire. These engineers are not good farmer managers themselves."
"Over these panels is their expertise. Under the Earth's surface is ours," Harris says.
Harris and Silicon Ranch put together a plan to rotate animal species around the sunbathing, possibly cattle and sheep. The animals would mush on grass and weeds and naturally fertilize the land with fertilizer. In between grazing periods, the country will have time to recover. Grazing in this way can prevent erosion and, along the way, potentially sequester carbon in the soil, as Harris has achieved in his own country. But it can take several years.
"When they give us access to the country, it will be very impoverished," Harris says. "We don't know how much care it has for a while. We don't know what to expect down there."
For now, the construction site is dusty and dry. A water wagon provides the rounds, splashing the ground with water to keep clouds of dirt from wrapping the workers when construction equipment rolls.
Come back in six months, says Nick de Vries, and this place will be transformed.  "You will see a sea of glass, silicon and steel," he says, looking out over this sunny, southwestern Georgia landscape.
And soon after Will Harris has his way, acre after acre with healthy bait, a sign of a restored ecosystem.