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VOL. 35 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 22, 2011

Sun’s shining on solar energy in Tennessee

By Hollie Deese

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When James Lasater was just 8 years old he was already helping his father install solar panels and geothermal units around his hometown of College Station, Texas, mainly for the professors of local Texas A&M University. Back then, they thought solar was the wave of the future and they were ahead of the curve. “Everyone thought we were crazy,” he says.

But they didn’t let that deter them.

“My father said ‘By the time you are 40 everyone will have this,’ and I always thought that was going to be the case,” Lasater says.

Now 40, Lasater is the president of Choice Mechanical, a Nashville-based energy-saving company that has provided geothermal, solar and wind services for the past three years. And while he has found that the replacement of fossil fuels by solar isn’t exactly the case, things are ramping up and have been for the past few years.

“Back then it was extremely expensive,” he says. “But now, most people are surprised at how affordable it is. Geothermal pays for itself in about five years. Solar is more expensive, and the payback is more like 7-9 years. But, that is acceptable to most people who are looking for a return on their investment.”

An investment is certainly one way people look at implementing a system to harvest solar energy. Helping the environment is another, sometimes secondary, consideration.

TVA’s Generation Partners program provides technical support and incentives for the installation of renewable generation systems, such as solar. Subscribers also have the benefit of lower monthly energy bills, thanks to the revenue they receive from selling green power.

John Patrick is someone taking full advantage of this program, which also give $1,000 to participants to offset startup costs. Patrick, a former evaluator with the EPA, and his son Eric partnered a few years ago and started Foggy Hollow Farm, an organic farm on 30 acres in Joelton. Eric and his family live on the homestead that came with the property, which John and his wife built a 1,750-square-foot-home for themselves. And every consideration to conservation was given to this LEED-certified home.

Built by Green Home Nashville, it is oriented due south with a roof pitched 36 degrees to catch the full sun on their solar PV system on the roof. The home is air tight, thanks to spray insulation, with everything confined to the cavity of the home. There is no attic or crawl space. Large windows catch the last rays of the afternoon sun. There is a geothermal heating unit that gathers energy that is stored in the earth and they have a separate solar hot water system.

“We have been here nine months and I have not paid an electric bill yet,” Patrick says. “In fact, I have a $300 credit with NES. It is a little bit more expensive than your standard HVAC system, but with Generation Partners, we are getting 12 cents more for everything we put on the grid than the standard rate.”

Through the Generation Partnership program, the TVA purchases all of the green energy output at a rate of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar energy.

But consumers are not the only people banking on the payback of solar energy. The Tennessee Solar Institute – which itself was launched just a year ago in April 2010 – reports there are nearly 150 businesses related to the solar industry in Tennessee, from big corporations like Sharp’s solar manufacturing plant in Memphis and AGC Flat Glass in Kingsport, to the more mom-and-pop spots that handle installation, manufacturing and training.

Chris Davis is the communications manager for the TSI, which is a partnership between the UT and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that brings together scientists, students, policy makers and industry partners to encourage growth of the industry.

“The Solar Institute is just another way to help make solar more mainstream and get it in the hands of more businesses,” Davis says. “Particularly the smaller ones who are in the solar value chain already, we help make them leaner, more efficient and help them expand their business quicker.”

One of their biggest tools they have used to accomplish this has been a funding program that has issued 112 grants totaling around $9 million dollars across the state since June 2010.

“The grant programs have been successful,” Davis says. “And the big thing is, these businesses had to pay a good portion of those installation costs themselves so it leveraged another $14 million. And the number of solar companies in Davidson County just jumps out at me.”

LightWave Solar is another Nashville-based company that took advantage of those grants. Opened by owner Steve Johnson in 2006, he has seen his business double every year since then.

“In 2006, there was hardly any solar in Tennessee,” Johnson says. “But it has been gathering steam ever since. The solar industry is taking off in Tennessee and creating jobs: manufacturing jobs, design jobs, installation jobs. So not only can we can create energy right here in the state, we can create jobs manufacturing, designing and installing these systems using that energy created here in the state. It is kind of a win-win type of situation in the solar industry.”

But all of these solar companies had to come from somewhere. Johnson’s background was in electrical construction. Portland-based Shoals had a history in the automobile industry before switching to renewable energy. When they opened their plan in December 2008, they created 400 local jobs. And with help from $1.25 million in grant money from TSI, they just purchased a second plant and hope to create another 400 jobs in the next few years. And everyone says there is room for even more.

“Hopefully more companies are going to come and more synergy is going to be created,” says John Maros, COO of Shoals. “There are solar groups that are coming within Tennessee to talk about what we need to help centralize suppliers, vendors and once again, trying to drive the cost down as we manufacture our components.

“I think the Tennessee Solar Institute and their grants are going to play a big part in showing companies that the state of Tennessee truly wants them to be here and they are willing to support these new companies and these new technologies so we can develop new products.”

Shoals has wired the two largest solar fields in North America, including a 58 megawatt field in Nevada, which contains 900,000 panels and 500 acres of glass.

In 2010, Maros is looking to develop even more advances in technology. And staying ahead of the pack could be what really boosts Tennessee future in solar.

“We in the solar industry need to drive the cost of solar energy down so we become on par with other forms of energy,” Maros says. “That is going to then prove that renewable energies are the wave of the future.”

For now, it is certainly generating interest for people with a background in home installation construction, many of who are still struggling to find work.

“A lot of what we are getting right now is solar PV training, helping people get back to work and provide people entry into the installation industry so they can go to work for some of these businesses,” Davis says. “We are seeing a high, high demand for this training across the state. And a lot of calls are from the Midstate, asking when we are offering the training.”

A class last week in Spring Hill offering training in solar system installation got more than 70 phone calls.

“With unemployment where it is and people looking for a job, particularly people who have experience in the electrical industry, it has been a popular choice,” Davis says. “I think we are going to continue to see some workforce development and I don’t think solar is going away.”

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