The outlook is as bright as ever for the local solar industry. Two large solar arrays are opening this week in Memphis and Haywood County, while industry leaders are gathering here this week to tout solar power and its growth in Tennessee in recent years.
The West Tennessee Solar Farm, which sits on 200 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 40 in Haywood County, is set to open this week.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
The solar array at Agricenter International opens Wednesday, April 11. The “farm” of solar panels was a fast-moving project that first became public when Agricenter filed for a $3.5 million construction permit in October.
The solar array in Haywood County, which opens Thursday, April 12, has been a work in progress over several years with additional plans to open a visitors center at the solar array sometime in 2013.
And this week also saw the Tennessee Solar Institute (TSI) and the Tennessee Valley Authority host the second annual 2012 Tennessee Valley Solar Solutions Conference at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.
The two-day conference – which includes keynote speaker Julia Hamm, president of the Solar Electric Power Association – is providing participants with “timely information on energy policy, smart grid technology, sustainability, innovation and job growth,” according to conference materials.
In Haywood County, the idea of the five-megawatt array, visible from Interstate 40, began as a way of attracting attention to the nearby West Tennessee megasite, one of three across the state established and marketed by the state as a site for industrial development. It is the only one of the three megasites that has not been developed.
Then-Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen touted the solar array by the site as a way to get the attention of industrial prospects and others although the companies being recruited for the site have not been in the solar industry.
Bredesen also committed more than $62 million of the state’s federal stimulus funding in a bid to create a solar power industry in the state.
Tennessee already has a Sharp Manufacturing Plant in Memphis that makes solar modules as well as the new Wacker-Chemie plant in Charleston, near Cleveland, that will produce polysilicon at an annual capacity of 15,000 metric tons when it opens next year. The polysilicon is used to manufacture solar cells.
And the Hemlock Semiconductor plant in Clarksville is also a part of the solar energy industry making the wafers that are part of the modules.
Bredesen will be at Wednesday’s Agricenter dedication. Silicon Ranch, the Nashville company Bredesen founded with his former Economic Development commissioner Matt Kisber, owns and will maintain the Agricenter solar farm.
The continuing challenge for those promoting a solar industry in Tennessee is it still isn’t as cost effective as they would like. And the technology is still evolving.
“The large solar farms are there to produce energy and put it back on the utility grid. And they’re getting paid for that,” said Earl Pomeroy of the Tennessee Solar Institute (TSI), who was at the University of Memphis two weeks ago to teach a University of Tennessee seminar on solar installation. “Small commercial and residential and large commercial manufacturing, there’s a big interest in that. Everybody I talk to is (asking), ‘How can I put that on my house?’ There are incentives out there right now. But the incentives are not great enough for the people who really want to do that.”
Robbie Daniels of Dyersburg, Tenn., one of the 29 people in Pomeroy’s daylong class, got a different reaction the night before. He said someone he told about his trip to Memphis asked, “Does that even work?”
Daniels, a systems analyst at the Dyersburg Regional Medical Center, is interested in residential solar installation, although he admits the 30 percent tax credits for solar make a commercial application – panels on a big rooftop – a better bet.
“My focus was to learn about residential. … It’s not something that is in my area. Nobody even thinks about this,” he said. “The commercial is probably better suited for me because you’re looking at feeding back to the grid. It could make more money. … The residential, you are going to feed your own system. Commercial, you are going to feed the grid.”
It is the ability to feed parts of a household system that drew Gregory Pope, principal and owner of his own landscape architecture firm Gregory A. Pope Associates PA of Moscow, to the class.
“How can we use these systems on a small scale to supplement some of the power needs – things like irrigation, lighting, a lot of the general landscape uses as well as tying it into the general household use?” Pope said of the questions that drew him to the technology.
Pomeroy said most of the 29 people in the class were those who wanted to work as installers.
“That’s really oversized,” he said of the class size. “But Memphis has always been a place where we’ve had a lot of interest in this class. The last one I had here, I had over 30 people in it.”
Tennessee has 180 for-profit companies in the solar power sector, according to TSI, which along with the Tennessee Valley Authority, hosted the Solar Solutions Conference. Thirty-three of those businesses have been established since 2008.
The Tennessee companies are “earning a healthy piece of this burgeoning business,” said TSI program director John Sanseverino.