Chattanooga businesses looking to harness solar energy

Chattanooga businesses looking to harness solar energy

January 9th, 2011 by Brittany Cofer in Business Around the Region

Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Aug 18, 2010 -On Wednesday afternoon at 212 Market Street Robert Gaskil installs solar panels to the restaurant's patio. These panels will generate 250 kilowatts of power.

Several years ago when Tom Moore saw the beginning effects of the recession, he knew he had to start cutting costs.

Instead of layoffs, he chose to go green.

Moore, president of Truck 'N Trailers USA in Chattanooga, began searching for more efficient ways to run his company in 2007. By 2010, he was able to offset his power costs by about 85 percent through the installation of a solar array atop his North Access Road building.

It didn't come cheap, costing about $240,000. But with the help of state and federal grants, as well as power buy-back incentives from the Tennessee Valley Authority, the project became financially feasible.

"It would have been unaffordable without the grants," Moore said.

Dozens of other local businesses also took advantage of the grants, with the Tennessee Solar Institute awarding 108 grants to businesses throughout the state for a total of $9 million in 2010. The grant program was part of Gov. Phil Bredesen's Volunteer State Solar Initiative, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Greenspaces worked with about 14 businesses in the downtown area for nearly 18 months to get solar panel arrays installed on rooftops, and more are interested, said its co-director, Jeff Cannon.

But the state funds that offset 30 percent of the cost have run dry, and the federal grant that covered 40 percent reverted to a tax credit at the beginning of the year, knocking out 70 percent of potential financial help for what is a costly undertaking, he said.

"The majority of businesses and building owners in this economy, they don't need a tax [break], they need money," Cannon said. "You're no longer looking at a five-year payback with both of those incentives being used. Now, you're looking at about a 12-year payback, which doesn't work as well."

Chris Davis, spokesman for the Tennessee Solar Institute, said there is no additional funding available to provide more installation grants, but the institute is in its second round of accepting applications for innovation grants, which can be used by businesses connected to the solar power industry.

The adoption of solar power in the U.S. has steadily grown since 2005, largely as a result of state and federal grant or incentive programs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Technological improvements in the efficiency of solar arrays and the size of the projects being completed now are beginning to drive down costs, said Ben Fischer, president of Signal Energy. However, it's still an expensive process stacked up next to other forms of energy.

"There's far from a level playing field," Fischer said. "The true cost of coal is not showing up in what you're paying in electricity -- same with oil, same with nuclear. Because of the different subsidies for these industries, you're not really seeing what the true cost of energy is."

Fischer said once subsidies are backed out of the equation, solar power becomes much more competitive.

Getting to the point where the energy source can be financially feasible without the help of grants will mean a lot of changes, according to experts.

Gerald Grekowicz, owner and operator of Sunny Solar, a company that designs and installs photovoltaic solar systems, said even with the grants in place it can be expensive for a small business to take on a solar project. Increases in production and government subsidies will drop the price over time, but he said he anticipates it being a slow process.

"The cost of coal has got to go up and the cost of solar has to come down," Cannon said, adding that environmental and health costs should be part of the equation.

There is potential in the Chattanooga area for costs to come down more quickly, experts said, with the Wacker Chemical plant in Bradley County set to produce polycrystalline silicon, the primary component used to manufacture solar panels and semiconductors.

"I think prices in the Tennessee Valley will drop when that comes online, because we'll be able to drive up the road and get the materials," said Anthony Roden, owner and operator of Tennessee Solar Solutions.

Locally, the investment in solar power goes a long way toward the greening of the city as a whole, experts said.

"What it does from an environmental standpoint is amazing," Cannon said. "Each one of those [businesses] is now producing energy and consuming energy that has zero negative health aspects. It's not damaging our air quality."

Contact staff writer Brittany Cofer at bcofer@times freepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/brittanycofer.