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    Solar gaining power in Tennessee

    Memphis connections contribute to rapid growth

    By Michael Sheffield - Memphis Business Journal -

    A new report from the Tennessee Solar Institute reveals stats that are becoming obvious: The solar industry is big business in the state, especially in West Tennessee.

    “The Tennessee Solar Value Chain,” which estimates the growth of solar usage, manufacturing and employment in the state, says that in the last four years, Tennessee has grown its solar usage from one tenth of a megawatt in 2008 to 27 megawatts in 2012. One megawatt of electricity is enough to power 1,000 houses.

    In Memphis alone, a 750-kilowatt solar array has been built on the roof of the parking garage adjacent to the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and a 1.6-gigawatt, $4.3 million system has been activated at Agricenter International. Local hand tool manufacturing company Great Neck Saw Manufacturing Inc. installed a $4 million solar array last year. All of the systems have panels manufactured by Sharp Manufacturing Co. in Memphis and integrate power into the Memphis Light, Gas & Water and Tennessee Valley Authority power grids.

    Since 2009, Sharp has created 200 local jobs, mostly related to solar panel production, including adding 70 people last year.

    The $31 million, 5-megawatt West Tennessee Solar Farm, located along I-40W near Brownsville, also opened earlier this year. The $83 million Legends Park residential development in Memphis has an 82-kilowatt solar array built into several of its multifamily units.
    John Sanseverino, director of programs for the Tennessee Solar Institute, says the increasing presence of companies that can install and service solar is producing a “vibrant solar industry in Tennessee.”

    The Tennessee General Assembly was pondering a tax earlier this year that could have charged up to $3,000 for a $1 million solar installation. The tax concerned solar advocates, but the bill has since been shelved.

    Sanseverino acknowledges that as federal incentives offsetting installation costs begin to go away, the demand for solar components could slow down. For example, Great Neck Saw received $1 million in federal funding for its installation. But that is being countered by the constant decrease in prices as well. Systems can be purchased for around $4.13 per watt; the U.S. Department of Energy’s goal is for rates to reach $1 per watt.

    “Public awareness is a big factor in demand,” Sanseverino says. “Seeing the systems out there installed and operating, with companies getting a revenue stream from them, helps with public education and awareness.”

    Steve Bares, president and executive director of the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, says the Bioworks’ array was installed because of the federal incentives that helped fund it. The $3.75 million system sits on the top floor of the parking garage, which was seldom used. However, the presence of the system sends a message of what Bioworks is trying to accomplish in the city.

    “Everything we’ve done — from the design of the park, to the way we’ve designed the labs and the solar panels — is done to attract the kind of people who are attracted by that kind of forward thinking,” Bares says.

    In addition to the demand growth, the state collected $12 million in tax revenue from solar arrays, a number that will at least be duplicated in 2012, Sanseverino says.

    There is expected to be another 20 megawatts of new solar installation in the next year. He says there are more than 800 new installations across the Tennessee Valley and the TVA has several applications for new systems that are currently being reviewed.

    “There’s a lot of interest on the residential side,” Sanseverino says. “As prices drop, you’ll see that grow as well. This isn’t just four or five solar farms. It’s widespread.”