published Friday, February 27th, 2009

Tennessee finds place in the sun

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Tennessee’s economic recruiters are finding their place in the sun.

The Volunteer State, already home to one of the nation’s biggest makers of solar panels in Memphis, landed its second $1 billion plant in three months on Thursday to supply a key component for the growing solar energy industry.

The decision by Munich, Germany-based Wacker Chemie AG to build a 500-employee plant in Bradley County comes just two months after the Hemlock Semiconductor Group announced plans for a similar plant in Clarksville, Tenn.

Solar surge

* Sharp’s Solar Energy Solutions Group employs 230 at a solar panel-making plant in Memphis that opened in 2003 and expects growth from new green energy tax incentives.

* Hemlock Semiconductor Corp. announced plans in December to build a $1.2 billion, 500-employee plant to make polycrystalline silicon for solar cells in Clarksville, Tenn.

* Wacker Chemical Corp. announced Thursday plans to build a $1 billion, 500-employee plant in Bradley County to make polycrystalline silicon for solar panel cells.

* Gov. Phil Bredesen is talking with the U.S. Department of Energy about creating a solar research institute in Oak Ridge in partnership with the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Together, the two investments will total more than $2.2 billion and bring the world’s two biggest makers of polysilicon for solar panels to Tennessee.

Wacker CEO Rudolf Staudigl said his company still is developing plans for his company’s first solar panel production facility outside Germany. But he said the Bradley County facility should help Wacker meet what he expects will be at least a 20 percent annual growth in solar energy use in the United States in the 21st century.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said the Volunteer State could be a new “Silicon Valley” for America’s growing solar energy industry.

“I really believe for our country to get back on the path to prosperity, we absolutely have to look at a broad range of sources of energy,” Mr. Bredesen told business leaders gathered Thursday in Cleveland to celebrate the biggest dollar investment ever in Bradley County. “Tennessee is well positioned to be a major player in the many realms of alternative energy, including solar power.”

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Gov. Bredesen said he met with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in Washington, D.C., earlier this week to talk about also developing a solar research institute in Tennessee with the support of the University of Tennessee at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

UT already has developed a biofuels research facility, and Nissan plans to pioneer battery-powered cars in a market test in conjunction with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But for all the new investment in manufacturing for alternative energy, Tennessee’s consumption of energy from wind, solar and biofuels remains well below the U.S. average, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Additionally, most of the state’s congressional delegation, including both Republican U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, voted last year against setting a renewable portfolio standard for electricity utilities.

“Gov. Bredesen is talking about creating ‘green-collar’ jobs, and he is making it happen,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “But ironically and sadly our delegation and primary utility (TVA) isn’t doing much to promote renewable energy.”

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