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Tennessee embraces solar installation

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Solar Institute (TSI) completed its highly successful Solar Installation Grant Program last week. With more than 6.7 megawatts of commercial solar projects installed in less than two years, TSI has helped boost Tennessee’s ranking nationally in the production of solar energy, from 20th in 2010 to 15th by the end of 2011, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.

TSI’s funding of the Solar Installation Grant Program ($11.5 Million) leveraged more than $27.1 Million of additional funding, which TSI officials believe speaks to the demand for solar. A total of 156 companies benefitted from TSI solar installation assistance, with a good mix of commercial, industrial and agricultural businesses stretching from one end of the state to the other. “During a time of economic uncertainty, these companies took action and committed resources to these projects,” said Dr. John Sanseverino, TSI director of programs, “creating jobs and demonstrating that solar is a sound business investment.”

The variety of businesses might surprise people. “The types of businesses that participated in the program (Solar Installation Grant) run the gamut,” said Sanseverino. “From mom-and-pop farms to large-scale manufacturers, companies lowered overhead costs by installing PV, allowing them to reinvest the savings back into their businesses.”

The Eco Travel Plaza in Crossville is in the truck stop business. Don Demko, owner of the Eco Travel Plaza, says his 35 kW solar array is just the first step in changing how consumers view his industry. He has a unique goal. “This solar installation is what began our mission to be the most environmentally friendly truck stop there can be,” said Demko.

In difficult economic times, however, the financial bottom line of installing solar is just as important to businesses as the environmental concerns. For instance, Cookeville-based J & S Construction utilized a TSI Solar Installation Grant to help fund a 37.5 kW system at its 28,000 square foot headquarters, and this, along with other changes the company undertook, resulted in an average winter heating bill of less than $95 a month for the entire facility during the coldest months of the year.

“Of course the investment made financial sense,” said John Stites II, president of J&S Construction. “But we are a very green company to begin with. Part of our mission is to show people and our clients that being more energy efficient can also be cost effective. Solar is a better way to produce power.”

While energy cost and energy usage is a concern for everyone in today’s economy, it is particularly important to manufacturers, who typically use a lot of energy. Many manufacturers recognize that installing solar panels is a good business decision, even if the power generated doesn’t represent a majority of their energy usage.

“Although it will only produce about three percent of our energy usage to start, that’s still a lot of money over the course of a year,” said Anne Mahoney, project manager for Chattanooga-based Wrigley, Inc. Wrigley saved more than $16,000 in its array’s first year of operation. “But it’s about more than that. The installation only covers 15 percent of our roof, so there is plenty of room to expand the system down the road, and it’s exciting to think that we are taking the first step to being more sustainable.”

Jake Saunders, president of Great Neck Saw in Memphis, had a 200 kW system installed on his company’s warehouse roof, generating more than $63,000 in credit on his first year’s utility bills. “As a businessman, it’s a long-term project to improve our efficiencies,” said Saunders. “Solar was another way to have a more efficient facility.”

Stories of utility savings are common among Tennessee companies that have solar installations. Consolidated Mill Supplies in Murfreesboro installed a 65.5 kW system and expects to save more than $17,000 in its first twelve months. BlueCross BlueShield’s 200 kW installation in Chattanooga will assist in cutting that facility’s electric bill by more than $50,000 a year.

Savings are not limited to the large solar arrays, however; smaller installations are also reaping the benefits of generating power from the sun. Richland Animal Clinic in Nashville is one of eight veterinary clinics that installed an array with assistance from TSI. The 16.9 kW system will be paid for in four to five years, but the quick payback period is not why the clinic’s owner, Dr. Terri Brockman, decided to install solar.

“It might not pay 100 percent of your electric bill,” stated Brockman, “but it will pay a good portion and you’re doing something good for the environment.”

The large number of projects and the amount of energy-generating capacity would seem to indicate that the forecast for solar, in 2012 and beyond, is bright in Tennessee. While the initial motivation behind solar installations varies from company to company, many of them share the sentiments of Dr. Tai Federico with Riverview Animal Hospital in Chattanooga in assessing the bigger picture. “Solar energy makes sense from a financial, environmental and marketing perspective,” said Federico. “The up-front costs are far outweighed by the long-term benefits.”

To read the entire list of 156 grantees that participated in the Solar Installation Grant Program, read the full press release (PDF).

Category: Announcements