published Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Surge of solar farms heats up Scenic City

Kaleb Milliken, an employee with Brown Construction of Fayetteville, Tenn., helps install the first few solar panels at VW Chattanooga. When complete, it will be the largest single-array solar park in Tennessee.
Kaleb Milliken, an employee with Brown Construction of Fayetteville, Tenn., helps install the first few solar panels at VW Chattanooga. When complete, it will be the largest single-array solar park in Tennessee.
Photo by Dan Henry.

SUN SPOTS

Recipients of Tennessee Solar Institute installation grants in Hamilton County:

• 350 Corporate Place LLC

• 650 Wauhatchie Pike LLC

• Adman Electric Inc.

• Advanced Technical Ceramics Co.

• Alstom

• BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

• Hayward Bolt and Specialty Co. Inc.

• Hiwassee Builders Supply

• Northgate Parts Inc.

• Riverview Animal Hospital

• Southeastern Sales Inc.

• Southern Champion Tray

• Top Flight Inc.

• Wrigley

Source: Tennessee Solar Institute

Its nickname is "Project Titan."

The biggest solar park in Tennessee will be located in Chattanooga when the $30 million project comes on line next to the Volkswagen plant later this year.

While the 65-acre VW facility will be big, it's just one of an array of solar projects which are or will be producing power in the Chattanooga area. Together, the projects make Hamilton County one of the largest, if not the biggest, generator of the energy statewide.

When VW's 9.58 megawatts of solar come on line and Chattanooga Airport adds another 1.1 megawatts to other installations already operating, the city alone will produce about 13.15 megawatts, or more than 20 percent of the 62.3 megawatts in TVA's seven-state service area.

Businesses in Hamilton County showed a lot of interest in a recent grant program by the Tennessee Solar Institute, records show. While Hamilton finished behind much larger Davidson County in the number of solar installations in the past couple of years, it was ahead of Shelby and Knox.

Davidson had 20 installations, Hamilton 14, Shelby posted 12 and Knox recorded 11.

"We hear a lot, frankly, [about Chattanooga]," said Chris Davis of Knoxville-based TSI. "We do think there is a certain mindset."

In EPB's service area, which includes Hamilton and parts of surrounding counties, TVA said there have been 66 solar installations through July since the utility started its small-scale renewable power generation program in 2003.

That number produces about 2.9 megawatts of electricity, providing enough solar to power 300 homes, TVA said.

Chattanooga Airport has plans to double its 1 megawatt solar installation, which already is tied for the second biggest in the state, an official said.

"Over the past 40 years, our city has transformed itself from one of the most polluted cities in the nation to one of the cleanest," said Terry Hart, the airport's chief executive. "Our airport shares the city's vision for sustainability."

Chattanooga is joining in a surge in solar power nationally. More solar was installed in the United States in this year's second quarter than in all of 2009, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

In the second quarter, photovoltaics installed totaled 742 megawatts in the U.S., up 45 percent over the first quarter and more than double the year-ago level, the association reported.

Government backing

The growth in solar is powered, in part, by tax incentives, federal grants and utility subsidies. For example, the Solar Institute, a collaboration of the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up in 2009, used $9 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to offer grants for solar installations.

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2009 used $62 million of the state's share of the federal stimulus program for solar-power projects, including the Solar Institute and the West Tennessee solar farm. The solar farm along Interstate 40 in Haywood County is currently the largest array in the state at 5 megawatts. TVA also pays premium prices to buy solar and offers incentives for solar power producers, and the Chattanooga group Green/Spaces had provided support as well, though changes have or will take place in the programs.

Anj McClain, who directs Green/Spaces, said it had offered "a small incentive" to go along with those at the state and federal level, but the group doesn't anymore.

"We were happy with the response," she said, adding that it stopped because its incentives had made sense coupled with others which since have been curbed.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks said its small-scale renewable power generation program is moving from a pilot effort to a more longterm and sustainable initiative Oct. 1.

New features include longer-term contracts, a new fast-track process, installer certification requirements, and a 12-cent-per-kilowatt-hour premium incentive for solar-generated electricity.

Davis said incentives for solar installation are expected to continue to decrease, though he doesn't think they'll go away.

At the same time, installation prices have dropped significantly, and he believes they'll continue to fall.

The newest Chattanooga solar unit is a $300,000 research project in the parking lot of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre on the North Shore.

John Halliwell of the Electric Power Research Institute said the canopy structure, which will produce 12 kilowatts of power, also will feature six electric vehicle charging stations.

While the electricity produced will go into the grid, he said the power generated by the facility could drive an electric vehicle for 7,000 miles annually.

The research project, jointly funded by the not-for-profit EPRI and TVA, will log the utilization of the system and how long vehicles stay, Halliwell said.

He said EPRI, whose members represent more than 90 percent of the electricity generated and delivered in the U.S., and TVA have deployed similar systems in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.

"We'll report [findings] to the membership," Halliwell said.

Airport project

At Chattanooga Airport, the first phase of its solar farm, which cost about $4.3 million, included installing 3,998 solar panels last year. The Federal Aviation Administration paid 95 percent of the cost.

Airport officials are seeking another grant of $3.06 million from the FAA for phase two, which will include the addition of 1.1 megawatts to the site, bringing it to a total of 2.1 megawatts.

Lovell Field is the only commercial airport in Tennessee with a solar farm, officials said. Smyrna Rutherford County Airport, a general aviation facility, recently installed a 1 megawatt system.

Hart said he's hopeful the grant will be issued and work can start later this year.

"Our efforts benefit both the airport and the community as they reduce our internal energy costs as well as give us the opportunity to produce clean energy for our community," he said in an email.

The airport's existing solar farm is slated to sell to EPB and TVA about $100,000 worth of electricity annually, according to officials.

VW's solar park, located directly behind its plant, will go into the plant and produce 12.5 percent of the factory's energy needs, the automaker said. That would be enough electricity to power about 1,200 Chattanooga homes, according to the company.

The solar park was a key to the factory landing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum status last year -- the first auto plant in the world to do so.

"It was icing on the cake" to gaining Platinum LEED, said Thilo Brockhaus, VW's manager of plant construction.

Solar-powered jobs

To help supply the growing solar power industry, two billion-dollar-plus polysilicon production plants are being built in Tennessee.

In Bradley County, work is under way on a $1.8 billion plant by Wacker to provide polysilicon, a key material in the production of solar panels. The plant is to employ 650 people and open in late 2013.

Also, Hemlock Semiconductor is completing a $1.2 billion polysilicon manufacturing facility in Clarksville, Tenn., that will produce 10,000 tons of polysilicon a year. It is to employ about 500 people.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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