Solar Future Bright in Tennessee

E-newsletter Issue #94 | June 7, 2012

Tennessee isn’t the first state you think of as home to a growing solar industry—Florida, the Sunshine State, sure, but not Tennessee, the Volunteer State.

That would be a mistake.

In 2009, with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen launched the Volunteer State Solar Initiative with the goal of making Tennessee “a manufacturing hub for anything solar,” said John Sanseverino, director of programs for the Tennessee Solar Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The initiative includes the institute and the West Tennessee Solar Farm.

Bredesen’s goals, according to the Volunteer State Solar Initiative website, were to grow the industrial base and position Tennessee as a leader in the clean energy sector.

“Tennessee has a long legacy in energy innovation going way back, starting from (Tennessee Valley Authority) dams, hydroelectric power. Nuclear energy is big down here. Switchgrass. Ethanol,” Sanseverino said. “We’ve been energy-wise … we’ve been pretty progressive.”

In fact, the West Tennessee Solar Farm near Memphis just opened this spring; the 5-megawatt farm can power 500 homes.

Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis sponsored the Tennessee Clean Energy bill in 2009. That bill brought the solar initiative and the solar farm to the state. But Kyle believes the manufacturing jobs tied to the solar industry were as important to getting the bill passed as the desire to develop a clean energy alternative in his state.

While those jobs are important, he hopes his state stands by the end goal—creating a domestic clean energy solution.

“There’s a difference in recruiting jobs in an industry and endorsing the policy behind it,” he said.

Solar industry is responsible for 6,400 manufacturing jobs in Tennessee, Sanseverino said. The industry grew by 67 percent in 2011, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. Sanseverino said of the 174 for-profit companies in the solar industry, 58 percent are small businesses with 25 employees or less.

Costs for solar energy, including the upfront investment, have dropped drastically in the past year. Federal and state incentives have helped.

“It’s becoming more affordable and I think more people are embracing (solar energy),” said Sanseverino.

Tennessee Sen. Low Finney, who proposed legislation this year to expand the solar farm near Memphis, hopes that continues.

“What it’s going to take is a renewed emphasis by the state legislature and the governor to say this is something we’re still committed to,” said Finney.

“What we’ve at least determined so far is that solar is the way to go,” Finney said. “Just simply because of geography and, again, what is a perceived need in the Southeast region of the United States.”

The solar initiative is tied to the University of Tennessee and the solar industry, and Finney said that unique aspect brings not just construction and maintenance jobs to the state.

“We also have this influx of other activity for education- and research-related purposes that really make it unique,” he said.

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