When Signal Mountain resident and Signal Energy President Ben Fischer was thinking of a name for his company, he thought of a green traffic signal, which prompts everyone to move forward in the right direction.
A general contractor in the renewable energy industry, Signal Energy is helping the country move in the "green" direction toward sustainable energy by installing large-scale wind and solar farms throughout North America as well as turning industrial waste into biomass energy.
"We've got to take care of the resources we've been given," said Fischer. "We've built our business on being good stewards and building relationships with the people we work with."
Raised in Signal Mountain, attending Thrasher Elementary and later Baylor School, Fischer went on to graduate from Georgia Tech and returned to Chattanooga as a representative for Siemens. He had the opportunity to work with a company doing infrastructure projects for developing countries when he really grasped the potential of renewable energy sources, which require a large up-front investment but little maintenance.
In 2001 he started SCS Energy, focusing mainly on biomass.
"We were green before it was cool to be green," said Fischer, who founded Signal Energy as a renewable energy subsidiary of general contractor EMJ Construction in 2005. "I see in the next 30 years a really great future [for wind and solar energy] worldwide. There has been tremendous growth, and the U.S. is really catching up."
He said about three years ago Signal Energy began to ramp up its research into solar energy. Better technology and building practices have caused the price of solar energy projects to go down by 30 percent in less than a year, said Fischer.
His company's solar projects range from 10,000 to 100,000 panels - enough to power 1,000 to 10,000 homes, he said. The closest project is the five-megawatt West Tennessee Solar Farm in Haywood County, which will be the state's largest utility-scale solar farm and one of the biggest in the Southeast, he said.
Fischer said most of Signal Energy's projects are located in rural, sparsely populated areas with plenty of wind, mainly in the Southwest, Midwest and Canada.
"Many projects help farmers stay in business," he said, as farmers receive revenue from wind turbines installed on their land.
He said John Deere often provides financing to farmers for building the project.
"One issue [in the U.S.] is a lack of clear and consistent policy for renewable energy," said Fischer.
Nonrenewable energy sources such as coal are heavily subsidized, resulting in an artificially low cost, he said.
For instance, the recent coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., carried with it a $1 billion to $2 billion price tag, which is not factored in when the price of coal is considered. Fischer said that cost will be absorbed by consumers through a 68-cent increase on their power bills every month until 2014 - an amount which would cover the cost of building a project producing 300 to 800 megawatts of wind or solar energy.
"We need to focus on sustainable, renewable energy as part of our portfolio," he said, adding that only 10 percent of TVA's energy comes from renewable sources including hydroelectricity, while 50-60 percent is still generated through coal. "I would love for TVA to change its policies to support renewable energy."
He said the region has a lot of potential for renewable energy, as it receives more sunlight than Germany, the world leader in solar energy production, and gets enough wind on the ridge tops to make installing turbines practical.
Signal Energy is at 2034 Hamilton Place Blvd., Suite 400, and can be reached at 855-1550. For more information visit the Signal energy website.