Tennessee's first solar farm scheduled for early 2012 start up

Contractor Signal Energy is finishing site preparation work to enable construction of the first utility-scale solar farm in Tennessee, a 5MW facility that will use more than 21,000 photovoltaic modules.

Signal President Ben Fischer tells Recharge that the West Tennessee Solar Farm will help position the state to become a leader in the emerging clean energy economy, particularly in the US Southeast where there are few solar farms. Commercial operation will start in early 2012.

The site in western Tennessee is designed to allow for at least 10MW of solar energy generation in the future. The project is part of the Volunteer State Solar Initiative (VSSI), created to benefit the Tennessee economy by using federal government money to create jobs and provide support to a growing solar industry.

Under the programme, $31m in funds from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will be used to install the solar farm. It will be owned by the University of Tennessee (UT)system.

The Tennessee Solar Institute , a joint research collaborative between Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UT, will use $23.5m from ARRA to issue grants from the Solar Opportunity Fund. It underwrites installation of advanced energy efficiency systems such as solar photovoltaic panels by businesses in the state, and provides training, technology and technical assistance to companies in the solar industry value chain.

“The programme is going great,” says John Sanseverino, who heads the initiative at the Tennessee Solar Institute, which has approved 125 projects thus far with a maximum individual $245,000 grant. He notes that green energy is among the fastest growing employment sectors in the state.

VSSI also aims to facilitate training of workers in new skills across Tennessee’s expanding renewable energy industry, and promote companies to share “best business practices” within the sector.

“The solar farm is a big step forward as an educational tool toward realizing benefits of solar in the state,” says Sanseverino. While there is strong public support in Tennessee for expanding use of solar power, that process has been slowed by its high cost in relation to fossil fuels and hydro. “Solar is expensive although prices are coming down. We need the right incentives to promote it.”

Fischer adds that Tennessee has about 50% more solar resource than Germany, the world leader in solar PV installations. “Large-scale solar projects are possible in this region with the right policies,” he says.