Wednesday, May 13, 2009

West Tennessee Solar Farm

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Gov. Bredesen seeks solar power generation facility for West Tennessee

NASHVILLE -- If Gov. Bredesen has his way, motorists traveling along Interstate 40 just east of Shelby County will see a vast solar power generation facility -- with 23,000 solar panels spread over 20 acres and capable of producing 5 megawatts of electricity -- before he leaves office in less than two years.

The governor announced today that he has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for approval to spend $62.5 million in federal money sent to Tennessee under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- the economic recovery and stimulus program -- to create a West Tennessee Solar Farm as a small part of the planned Haywood County West Tennessee industrial "megasite" and a Tennessee Solar Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The solar farm would be a part of the solar institute, and each of the two facilities would receive about $30 million.

Bredesen said he's confident DOE will approve his application for the use of the money, submitted late Tuesday, and that work on the project could proceed quickly afterward. He gave no timetable for the project but said he believes the Haywood County solar farm could be functioning before his term expires in January 2011.

If it does become a reality, the Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to buy the power produced there at premium, renewable energy rates and re-sell it on its power grid. TVA senior vice president John Bradley said 5 megawatts is enough to power between 450 and 600 homes a year, or roughly 43 percent of the residential energy used in Somerville and 11 percent of the residential power used in Brownsville, the county seats nearest the facility.

Overall, TVA generates about 30,000 megawatts a year.

Bredesen said it would be the largest solar array in the eastern U.S. He said the high percentage of sunny days in West Tennessee that helps make the region the state's best farming area also makes it a prime area for solar power development. The area has about 80 percent of the solar potential as a state like Arizona, he said.

The state and Haywood County are moving toward acquisition of about 1,700 acres of land between I-40 and U.S. 70 in southwestern Haywood County, near Exit 42 south of Stanton, for an industrial megasite, which the state and TVA market as sites for the development of large industrial complexes. It is similar to the sites near Tupelo, Miss., that landed a Toyota manufacturing plant and in Chattanooga where Volkswagen is building an auto plant.

Tennessee Economic Development Commissioner Matt Kisber said the presence of the 20-acre solar farm on the megasite will enhance, not hinder, the marketing of the huge site for larger industrial facilities.

The two projects are part of a "Volunteer State Solar Initiative" the governor is pursuing, a comprehensive solar energy and economic development program to advance job creation, education, research and renewable power production in the state.

But the solar farm itself would not generate many permanent jobs, beyond the 200 to 300 construction jobs, because the facility would be very low maintenance, the governor said.

Anticipating criticism of spending the federal money for new initiatives while the state faces cuts in critical services, Bredesen said the money cannot be used to plug those budget holes. "It's available only for energy investments. If I could use it for children's services, I would. And instead of doling out $100,000 each here and there, I wanted to do something that would be an investment in the state's future.

"If we can pin ourselves down as a leader in these alternative energy sources, particularly solar, I think it will help create jobs and lead to other investments" over time.

The governor said he envisions the solar farm as also being an educational center, with a visitors center explaining solar power and its generation that school children would visit.

The solar farm’s planned oversight by an institute that the governor proposes to house at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, in conjunction with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that UT helps manage, may generate some rivalry between UT and the University of Memphis, given the site’s proximity to Memphis and the governor’s statement that West Tennessee is about the only region of the state with the potential to become competitive in solar power generation.

And U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., is quoted in the governor’s press release as saying the solar initiative is statewide. “It also will bring us closer to eventually developing a regional high-tech corridor, connecting Oak Ridge and UT with Tennessee Tech, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University), Vanderbilt, and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.,” Gordon said, without mention of the Haywood County site or Memphis.

U of M President Shirley Raines declined to be drawn into a turf battle today but did say she hopes her school can be involved. “We are pleased to see Haywood County and rural West Tennessee as the site for a solar farm. Economic development through solar energy makes sense for West Tennessee, given the area and land mass with the most solar possibilities. … We will be eager to work with ORNL and the state solar initiatives to add expertise from the University of Memphis and to support this milestone endeavor.”

Raines said the university is known for its engineering, computer science and technology applications, as well as its studies in economic development, and is thus positioned for involvement.

“To be successful as a state its going to take all our knowledge workers’ abilities, our researchers and innovators, as well as the corporate community coming together. It’s a statewide initiative and all of us working together across the state is probably a wise move.”

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