Solar Power Creating Jobs, Boosting Tennessee’s Economy

Tennessee’s state government may not being doing a lot in the way of offering incentives for its residents and small businesses to install renewable energy systems, but the Volunteer State’s economy is benefiting from growing use of solar power nonetheless.

More than 200 companies are manufacturing, installing or distributing solar power in Tennessee, boosting the economy and creating clean tech jobs in manufacturing, installation, power distribution, sales and support by taking advantage of the state’s renewable natural resources. These are much welcomed economic trends that are mirrored across the US, notes Joe Ing, executive director of the Brownsville-Haywood County Chamber of Commerce in an op-ed piece in the Jackson Sun.

In manufacturing, Sharp’s Hickory Hill plant in Memphis celebrated producing its 1 millionth solar panel last year. Originally opened in 1978, the plant turned out TV sets and microwave ovens until 2000 when Sharp management moved these activities to Mexico. Now, the plant is turning out Sharp solar panels 24-hours a day.

Billion-dollar solar industry investments have come Tennessee’s way in the form of Hemlock Semiconductor’s polysilicon plant in Clarksville and Wacker Chemie’s plant in Cleveland Hills. Well over 1,000 clean tech jobs are being created as a result.

Both of the investments came about as result of the efforts of former Governor Phil Bredesen, who invested a $62.5 million clean energy grant, courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), to create both the “Volunteer State Solar Initiative” and the Tennessee Solar Institute, both run by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation.

The Solar Highway

Tennessee rates respectably high in terms of solar energy potential. In fact, solar insolation in the Tennessee Valley is 50 percent higher than the average in Germany, which has made itself the world leader in solar power, according to Generation Partners, a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) renewable energy initiative.

Despite its lack of a Renewable Power or Portfolio Standard (RPS), solar power projects are cropping up around the state as solar power project developers and local entrepreneurs work to boost solar power in the Volunteer State.

Though recently delayed due to the need to upgrade a grid interconnection line between the TVA’s grid and a Chickasaw Electric Cooperative sub-station, Tennessee’s largest solar power farm, Haywood County’s 5 megawatt (MW) West Tennessee Solar Farm, is scheduled to come on line in January.

Built by Chattanooga’s Signal Energy LLC, the project’s lead developer is the University of Tennessee Research Foundation based on a contract with the Tennessee Dept. of Economic and Community Development.

The solar panels Signal Energy has installed for the West Tennessee Solar Farm sit on unused land bordering interstate highway I-40. The TVA will purchase the emissions-free, renewable electricity, which is expected to yield about $100,000 per month in revenue.

The Tennessee Dept. of Transportation is leading the next phase of the project, which calls for developing an interstate exit leading to visitor’s educational center to be constructed in the middle of the solar power farm.

“They need to know how it operates. Everybody still thinks solar systems are based on the use of batteries,” Eric Rank general manager of Solar and Renewable Power Systems, told an Associated Press (AP) reporter. “There’s a lot of education that needs to be done.”

* Photo courtesy of Signal Energy

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email: