For more information about the solar farm program, go to www.dremc.com or call the Shelbyville, Tenn., office at 931-684-4621. To see live data on the solar farm, visit the solar farm monitoring site at http://live.deckmonitoring.com/?id=duck_river for readouts on performance, updated regularly throughout the day.
SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. -- They're farming sunshine in Tennessee's horse country, where members of the Duck River Electric Membership Corp. can buy a piece of ol' Sol for as little as $600.
The Bedford County-based utility is seeking investors in the $128,000 solar system installed behind its Shelbyville headquarters, said Brad Gibson, Duck River's director of member services.
Gibson said the system generates 25.92 kilowatts of power for immediate use. A typical home requires from 5 to 10 kilowatts of electric power at a given time, he said.
The idea is to offer members in Duck River's 17-county service area a chance to participate in solar energy production without investing in a home system -- which can range in price from $15,000 to $35,000 -- or to offer a solar option for customers whose homes are surrounded by trees or other sun-blocking obstructions, officials said.
Gibson said investors should expect to see a full return on their investment over 10 to 20 years, but in the interim, they gain the satisfaction of participating in sustainable energy production.
Duck River member Andy Redden, 58, said he's not so sure it's an "investment" for someone like him, but admitted younger people might reap benefits over time.
"It's probably a worthwhile project, but they've probably got some more work to do to make it efficient," Redden, a lifelong Bedford County resident, mused as he was leaving the utility's Shelbyville office.
"In 20 years, I'll be 78. I probably won't care then," he predicted with a laugh.
But he said greater efficiency and a quicker return on investments would probably boost member buy-in for folks closer to his age.
The arrangement between Duck River and the Tennessee Valley Authority is a first-of-its-kind pilot program developed between a local power company and the federal utility that qualifies for TVA's Generation Partners Program, according to Duck River and TVA officials.
TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said the initiative "is a great way for Duck River ... to promote the Generation Partners pilot program and make more renewable energy available to consumers through an innovative business model."
According to TVA, its energy portfolio through August includes a total of 6,271 megawatts of operating or committed renewable capacity, which includes hydroelectric.
Bradley said the 1,367 participants in the Generation Partners program presently stand at about 79 megawatts of renewable capacity.
Gibson said 20 to 30 of Duck River's 71,000 members have invested since the system went online this summer. Most of the available 216 investment units are still available and each unit equals one-half of one of the 108 solar panels that make up the three wing-shaped arrays erected at the Shelbyville office, he said.
"We're fielding quite a few phone calls right now," Gibson said on a hazy, semi-sunny Wednesday as he stood in the shade of one of the arrays.
Duck River officials found that some of their members were interested in solar power, but couldn't install a home system because of the high cost or lack of a sun-catching location for solar panels, he said.
The return on the investment comes back "at 22 cents a kilowatt-hour," he said. On customers' utility bills, a minimum investment of $600 could tally a return of roughly $3.50 to $4.50 a month, depending on the amount of sunshine.
Investors will have access to power output until August 2032, he said.
While the Duck River/TVA arrangement is new, solar-powered energy production is not.
Other sunshine farms are sprouting up in other parts of the state.
Two solar farms opened in Tennessee in April, one in Memphis which can generate 1 megawatt of power, and the West Tennessee Solar Farm about 45 miles northeast of Memphis which uses more than 21,000 panels to produce 5 megawatts of power, according to The Associated Press.
The AP reports that statistics gathered by the federal government, the Tennessee Solar Institute and other groups show that the solar energy production moved Tennessee from 20th place to 15th place between 2010 and 2011. The institute shows the state solar voltage installations grew from less than 0.1 megawatts in 2008 to 27 megawatts in 2011, and predicts a 10 to 15 percent increase in 2012, according to the AP.
The idea is not lost on industry, either.
In March, officials at Chattanooga's Volkswagen plant announced plans to build a $30 million solar park that, at 9.5 megawatts, could become the state's biggest and one of the largest privately-run facilities in the Southeast, according to Volkswagen Executive Vice President Patrik Mayer's comments in a March Times Free Press story on the announcement.
The facility will produce up to 12.5 percent of the VW plant's power, officials said.
TVA's Bradley said the unique project in Shelbyville also increases renewable energy education and awareness.
Duck River's Shelbyville solar farm is within sight of three Bedford County schools where educators could incorporate the facility into discussions about electricity and solar power, Gibson said.
Those schools are close enough students could visit frequently, and an online monitoring site that updates the farm's solar power production continuously shows current readouts and the effects of sun and shade throughout the day, he said.
A couple hundred yards away at Shelbyville Central High School, Principal Don Embry said teachers of the sciences are already starting to eye the new facility as a teaching tool.
"Our physics class has already been over there," Embry said, and students were "impressed" by the solar program.
"Our physics teacher is exploring ways to tie it into the curriculum," Embry said.
He anticipated other teachers would find ways to incorporate the handy facility into their lesson plans as they learn more about it.
The long-term vision for the solar farm is to allow the system to pay for itself over a period of 10 years or so, according to Duck River president and CEO Jim Allison.
"What the intention here is that the programs would be supported in the public interest with tax credits and with premium pricing from TVA through the Generation Partners Program, allow the industry to mature, and then at some point we hope and expect it would be cost-competitive on its own," Allison explains on a video presentation on the utility's website.
Gibson said that a successful launch of the program could encourage other utilities to follow suit in the future. And Duck River could broaden its program to expand the solar farm in Shelbyville, or add solar operations at offices elsewhere in its service area, he said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Subscribe to his Facebook posts at facebook.com/ben.benton1 and follow him at twitter.com/BenBenton on Twitter.