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VOL. 125 | NO. 42 | Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Energy in Memphis

Solar rebate bill could benefit local plant

By Bill Dries

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Congressman Steve Cohen and a contingent from Sharp Manufacturing’s solar plant inspect a 100,000-watt rooftop solar panel array that Sharp Manufacturing is installing.
Photo: Lance Murphey

On an overcast, chilly day this week, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen carefully climbed a ladder to the roof of the Sharp Manufacturing plant on Mendenhall Road.

At the far end of the white roof was a growing array of solar panels and evidence of more work to come.

Sharp is already using a different array of solar panels it makes within the plant to partially power the facility that makes solar panels.

Cohen was at Sharp Monday to highlight the bill he is sponsoring with Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Introduced last month, the legislation sets a goal for 2019 of 10 million roofs equipped with solar panels and 200,000 solar water heating systems with a cumulative capacity of 10 million gallons.

During a press conference at Sharp Manufacturing’s solar plant in Memphis, Congressman Steve Cohen announces legislation intended to create new jobs and fund solar research and development.

The bill instructs the U.S. Department of Energy to set up a program of cash rebates of up to 50 percent on the cost to buy and install the panels and the water heaters. Half the price is the maximum rebate with the amount based on each watt of installed capacity.

No total dollar amount is set in the legislation. The Energy Department would have room to adjust the amount based on market conditions and other factors.

The rebates would be used along with existing federal tax rebates.

The earlier rebate was originally capped at $2,000 for residential solar panels. The cap was later removed and pays up to 30 percent of the cost.

Cohen acknowledged the legislation sets a costly goal.

“The government has to invest in this,” he said, citing estimates of the creation of just more than 1 million direct and indirect jobs including making the panels and water heaters as well as installing them.

“This will go a long way. … We’re going to try to get it passed. It will cost considerable monies. But it will be a saving in the long run to this country, to Mother Earth and to the soldiers who are presently fighting to protect our country’s access to oil resources.”

The cost of solar panels for homeowners is considered a drawback to the goal of widespread use of solar energy. So is the number of panels required to generate enough power for a home at an estimated cost of $10,00 to $20,000 per panel.

“How much for one house – 3,000-square-foot house?” Cohen asked Sharp executives as he eyed the rooftop panels. They estimated it would take about 30 panels to provide all power to the house.

Gov. Phil Bredesen has prioritized the creation of a solar industry in the state as his second and final term in office comes to an end this year.

In January, he announced the construction of a factory in Clinton, Tenn., near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to make crystal silicon ingots for solar power cells. Confluence Solar of Missouri is building the 200,000-square-foot plant on a 25-acre site.

The factory is part of $2 billion in capital investment in Tennessee during the past two years. The investment includes the Hemlock semiconductor plant in Clarksville and the Wacker Chemie plant in Cleveland, Tenn., which processes polysilicons used in making solar cells.

Sharp’s Memphis plant was converted to produce solar panels and technology after the production of televisions at the plant was halted and moved to Mexico in 2000.

The company offers tours of the plant, but is careful to ban photography that might disclose proprietary information.

The Memphis plant recently began round-the-clock production of the panels. Its work force has been increased by 50 percent as a result.

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