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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Solar Panel Site Dedicated in Hopes of Creating New Jobs

More than one megawatt worth of solar panels spread across a hillside in East Knox County was touted as a demonstration of the potential of the power of the sun, both as clean-energy source and economic engine, during an event Thursday dedicating the installation.

Set on a five-acre lot on Andrew Johnson Highway, the 4,608 solar panels can produce nearly 1.2 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 125 homes. The system was built by the Natural Energy Group in partnership with Efficient Energy of Tennessee, and more than 150 representatives from industry, education, government and research institutions attended the event.

“A couple of years ago, there probably weren’t a lot of people who would have envisioned this built here,” said Chad Duty, solar technologies manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of a number of local officials who spoke at the dedication.

Tennessee has seen unprecedented growth in the solar business with the introduction of state and federal incentives for solar power generation and an expansion of TVA’s buy-back program for the power generated by solar and other renewable technologies. Tennessee also has attracted a couple of large solar manufacturers to the state, adding to existing companies that include Sharp Electronics, which built the panels for the local megawatt array at its plant in Memphis.

“Not only is this project healthy for the environment … together we are helping create new, clean jobs for the state of Tennessee and for the nation,” Michael Lasky, director of reseller channel sales for Sharp’s solar energy solutions group, told the crowd.

Tennessee is among several states quickly adopting solar, said Lasky, and Sharp’s Memphis plant recently increased its employment by 50 percent to accommodate the new demand.

“Back in February of this year is when you saw this uptick and it’s never looked back,” he said in an interview following the event, during which the company unveiled its 2 millionth panel manufactured in Tennessee.

Natural Energy Group, a startup investment firm focused on the solar market, backed construction of the system in an effort to attract customers willing to invest in similar-sized systems. Natural Energy Group will offer those customers financing for the projects, and several are in the works, said Robbie Thomas, president of Efficient Energy of Tennessee and an owner of Natural Energy Group.

But the site will be a resource for local research and educational organizations as well, he said. A building on the property is outfitted with classroom space for school tours, and Thomas said the company is working with Cleveland State Community College and Pellissippi State Community College to use the site as part of solar installer training programs.

Researchers at TVA and ORNL also will use the installation as a measure of the potential for solar technology in this region of the country, Duty said, adding that it will help the state lure more solar business.

“It gives us important data to talk to companies about coming to Tennessee,” he said. “The Southeast is really going to be one of the next hot spots for solar.”

Speakers were quick to point out Tennessee’s first megawatt solar project is somewhat diminutive compared with solar deployment in other states such as California and New Jersey. One of Sharp’s recent customers is building an 18-megawatt solar system in Ontario, Canada, with plans to expand to 40 megawatts of generation.

“This is kind of an interesting peek into the future,” said Rudy Shankar, TVA vice president for technology innovation. “This is the proverbial ‘one small step.’ ”

Mintha Roach, president and CEO of KUB, related a story to the crowd about a conversation she had on a recent vacation to California with someone who immediately recognized Tennessee’s solar accomplishments and said he’d read about the project.

She said the man, upon learning the size of the system, assured her, “ ‘It’s a start, but you’re going to get there.’ ” 
From Knoxvillebiz

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