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VOL. 124 | NO. 229 | Friday, November 20, 2009

Memphis Companies Tap Into Renewable Energy Sources

By Eric Smith

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CROPPING FOR ENERGY: Peter Nelson, director of the AgBio program at Memphis Bioworks Foundation, stands in front of sweet sorghum crops at Agricenter International.  The program identifies alternative crops and high-value markets for those crops. – Photo by Lance Murphey

From solar power to wind power, from hybrid automotive technology to geothermal engineering, Memphis companies large and small are tapping into renewable energy.

The biggest news story surrounding local businesses going green involves shipping giant FedEx Corp., whose president and CEO Fred Smith earlier this year unveiled the company’s plans to become more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly through its EarthSmart initiative.

“That’s just good economics as far as the economy is concerned,” Smith told a green transportation conference at the University of Memphis. “Over the last decade, it’s obviously become a greater issue for FedEx – for humankind, for that matter – to have a more sustainable and environmentally efficient economy. The twin imperatives of energy efficiency and environmental sustainability have been at the heart of our EarthSmart initiative.”

FedEx has put its money where its founder’s mouth is by investing in numerous gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles for FedEx Express, the largest of the company’s subsidiaries. Also, FedEx made its Bronx, N.Y., station its first all-hybrid facility with about 100 trucks.

Solar growth

It’s not the only local corporation tapping into consumers’ demand for all things green.

Sharp Manufacturing Co. of America has been manufacturing solar panels since 2003 at its Hickory Hill plant, the company’s lone U.S. facility that produces the panels.

Sharp completed its one millionth solar panel this year, but it has steadily ramped up production and is now making 500,000 residential and commercial solar panels annually, serving domestic and international markets.

Sharp spokesman T.C. Jones Jr. said customers are looking at the environmental as well as the economic benefits of installing solar panels and switching part of their energy to the sun’s resource.

“The demand for renewable energy has skyrocketed within the last three years, especially with the new administration and all of the incentives being provided throughout the country,” Jones said. “State by state, the demand is escalating.”

The company is looking at increasing its output to meet the growing demand, although Jones said there are no specific, measurable plans, only that officials are seriously considering another bump in production.

“It is under study at this time,” Jones said. “As to how much of an increase, we’re trying to project what the future demand is going to call for.”

Trend growing

Green energy isn’t limited to the rooftops; it can be found underground as well.

Engineered Comfort Inc. engineers, designs and installs heating and cooling systems for residential properties. Company founder Walter Nelms said the demand for such eco-friendly systems has risen along with environmental consciousness and federal tax credits that reward green choices.

“In 2008 about 15 percent of our business was geothermal heat pumps, and this year it’s over 65 percent of our business,” Nelms said. “It’s primarily due to the federal tax credit from the stimulus package.

“It is a good thing for the environment,” he added, “and it is a good thing for the consumer’s pocketbook.”

Rob Hurston, technical services coordinator for the Memphis Area Home Builders Association, said green energy for residential properties got a huge jumpstart at last month’s Vesta Home Show, the first all-green home show.

Also, more local builders are becoming Certified Green Professionals through the National Association of Home Builders, meaning they will be ready to meet the needs of the public should demand rise.

Where that demand sits is anyone’s guess, Hurston said, because the sluggish economy has stunted the new home market. That is especially true with components like residential solar panels, which are still expensive for the average homebuyer and don’t offer quick returns on investment that some might like to see.

“I would love to be self-sufficient and not have to give (Memphis) Light, Gas and Water my money every month,” Hurston said. “But the upfront cost on a solar panel … buys a lot of months of electricity.”

Still, Hurston added, the writing is on the wall that interest in green building is increasing. More buyers are requesting locally made materials, more builders are recycling construction waste and more homeowners are buying Energy Star appliances.

That means the pieces are in place for a surge in green building as more customers ask for it and the financial climate improves.

“(Builders are) positioning themselves to be able to meet the demand,” Hurston said.

‘New wave in America’

Will hotel travelers demand green energy during their overnight stays? The developer of the La Quinta Inns and Suites under construction at 2839 New Brunswick Road near Wolfchase Galleria is banking on it.

CBH Hospitality LLC is combining two green energies – solar and wind – to create the first LEED-certified hotel in town. Company principal Bhavesh Patel said general contractor Boone & Sons Inc. is working on the third floor of the hotel, which should be completed by spring. (LEED is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.)

Thanks to solar panels and a windmill on the roof, the hotel will produce much of its own energy and even send power back to the grid. But the solar panels and windmill are only parts of the hotel’s green efforts. Patel said at least half of the building’s lights will be the highly efficient LED (light-emitting diode), reducing the building’s carbon footprint even further.

Though Patel said only a small percentage of Memphis is going green, he hopes the La Quinta can be a catalyst for environmentally friendly building.

“That’s the way we should be going. That’s the new wave in America. Everybody should be going eco-friendly,” Patel said. “Even if you don’t believe in global warming you can still be environmentally friendly and save energy – and save money.”

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 31 327 17,870
MORTGAGES 49 409 20,835
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 0 0
BUILDING PERMITS 129 800 36,616
BANKRUPTCIES 51 243 11,925
BUSINESS LICENSES 21 117 5,677
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 41 215 12,248
MARRIAGE LICENSES 29 121 4,478

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