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VOL. 126 | NO. 217 | Monday, November 07, 2011

Tennessee’s Solar Future Looks Bright

By Bill Dries

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The president of the Chattanooga, Tenn., company building the West Tennessee Solar Project in Haywood County says Tennessee has a lot of so far unrealized potential for large utility scale solar arrays.

A worker passes solar panels at the West Tennessee Solar Farm, which sits on 200 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 40 in Haywood County.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

And Ben Fischer of Signal Energy calls the economic development potential of the large arrays “essentially manufacturing without a roof.”

“Not only has the technology improved, the cost has really come down in just the equipment,” Fischer said. “The installation methods and the ways in which they achieve economies of scale on large-scale projects has made us more cost effective as well.”

Signal Energy is the renewable energy arm of EMJ Corp., a commercial general contractor whose solar work has been focused on large arrays like the one in Haywood County.

Signal’s resume is deeper and better known for its work on large utility scale wind projects in other regions and also works in biomass energy and construction.

Tennessee, Fischer said, has enough potential to draw Signal’s interest.

“Our region is poised for significant growth in the solar energy market. In this region as a whole we have better solar resources than that of Germany, which is the leader in the solar industry worldwide,” Fischer said. “The amount of sun to be able to harvest for electricity – this is a very good place to put a solar project.”

Signal not only built the five-megawatt array in Haywood County bordering Interstate 40, it will manage and maintain the facility, which is selling the power generated to the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Such arrays are getting more attention.

The TVA board this week approved a 4,000-panel array at Agricenter International to generate nearly 1,000 kilowatt hours on land west of the Ducks Unlimited headquarters.

Silicon Ranch, the Nashville company founded by former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and former Economic Development commissioner Matt Kisber, will finance and own the Agricenter array.

Fischer says the interest is because of “grid parity.”

“Some of our customers on the utility side have expressed an interest over the past three or four years of entering the solar energy market principally because the cost of installing a solar project was trending downward and was beginning to meet that threshold of what we call grid parity,” he said.

Subsidies are involved in the movement closer to parity, something critics often cite.

Fischer counters that subsidies help industries built around the non-renewable sources of energy.

“You don’t have to look very far to find it in the oil industry, the nuclear industry, the coal industry which have had huge subsidies over generations and have current subsidies,” he said. “The real question is do we feel the stewardship in having a form of energy that is renewable is an important part of the mix – the portfolio?”

Fischer and others, including those installing solar technology in homes on a much smaller scale, however, say the TVA subsidies are aimed toward the smaller scale projects.

“TVA has been successful in putting forth programs for a small project. The current incentives limit the development projects to small projects,” Fischer said. “The current programs don’t support any meaningful growth in renewable energy. They do show baby steps.

The TVA approval of the Agricenter array was grandfathered into the TVA program because it was in design before TVA guidelines changed lowering the biggest solar project it would pay premium energy prices for to ones generating no more than 200 kilowatt hours.

The TVA guidelines that still apply to the project require it to be completed by April 12.

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