April is proving to be a banner month for alternative energy as two solar arrays formally opened within days of each other last week.
The West Tennessee Solar Farm in Haywood County is the largest in the state with 21,000 panels.
The array at Agricenter International in East Memphis is the largest in the state with tracking panels that move to follow the sun across the sky. And there are more than 4,000 of those.
The two solar farms are milestones in Tennessee’s pursuit of alternative energy sources for the power grid and a solar industry. And they are also certain to change as solar technology evolves toward a goal of becoming more cost efficient.
The Tennessee Valley Authority incentives essential to both of the operations have already changed since the projects began. The change encourages smaller but more rooftops for the solar panels as opposed to more acreage or rooftop square footage for more solar panels.
TVA continues to buy the energy from the large arrays at market rates. But the smaller arrays get a premium and they get additional incentives for hiring local companies for the installation said Patty West, Renewable Energy Programs director for TVA.
“We’re transforming our program so the Generation Partners (program) … is now being focused on smaller systems,” she said. “That’s really to spread it out and get a more distributed generation and more jobs, more opportunities to be dispersed through the valley.”
Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president Jerry Collins said the Memphis part of the Generation Partners program has 30 commercial rooftops or solar arrays and nine residential. MLGW joined the program in 2006.
“Each house doesn’t have that much roof space but there’s an awful lot of houses,” Collins said.
West is aware of the dilemma for homeowners who may want solar on an older home but can’t justify it over what is left of the life of their home. It’s more likely to work on a new home that begins its life with solar.
“There’s definitely a span of time before you can recover your investment on residential,” she said. “But as the costs continue to come down it will become more prevalent.”
The Haywood County solar array represents $30 million of the more than $60 million in federal stimulus funding the administration of former Gov. Phil Bredesen devoted to starting a solar industry in the state.
It didn’t use panels made at the Memphis Sharp manufacturing plant, but the Agricenter solar farm did.
After leaving office, Bredesen and his commissioner of Economic Development Matt Kisber started Silicon Ranch, a Nashville-based company that owns and operates the Agricenter solar array.
Silicon Ranch stepped in last October with capital as it looked like the Agricenter project might miss the cutoff for the TVA financing.
“We were digging for the deadline,” said Agricenter board chairman Bill Gillon.
“I think this industry is at a very early stage,” Kisber said as he talked about the need for “sources of capital that understand the industry that are willing to partner for the long-term life of an asset like this.”
“Financial institutions have much shorter time frames,” he added. “It is technology that while very mainstream is new to people. The technology that’s running these panels is the same basic technology has been in the field for 40 years. But it’s new to this part of the country.”
The University of Tennessee owns and operates the Haywood County solar array. And the university will analyze data as it conducts research on solar technology while the farm sends electricity to the TVA grid via the Chickasaw Electric Cooperative.
UT officials touted the array as part energy provider, part billboard of sorts for the possibilities and research.
David Milhorn, a university vice president, called it a “great teaching tool.”
“A utility scale test site is a game changer in the solar energy field,” he said.
The Haywood County solar farm borders Interstate 40 with plans next year for an interchange for westbound traffic to exit and enter the site. Next year, a visitors educational center is also to be built on the 25 acre site.