Solar Markets Growing in Tennessee But There is Still Work To Do

Guest Blog | December 3, 2009 | Energy Policy

“Our focus on developing the solar industry in Tennessee can create lots of new jobs, if we just choose to see the light.”  This quote didn’t come from a clean energy or environmental advocate.  It came from Tennessee’s commissioner of Economic and Community Development, Matt Kisber,  in his November 18th guest editorial in the Nashville Tennessean.

A Tennessee company installing Tennessee-made solar panels
A Tennessee company installing Tennessee-made solar panels

Commissioner Kisber‘s editorial highlights where Tennessee currently stands regarding the state’s solar industry.  First, we’ve come a long way towards developing these markets. Economic growth, clean energy jobs, and a healthier environment are all being realized as a result of the state’s investment in solar energy.

However, there is still work to be done before these markets reach their full potential.  State programs must be streamlined to provide reliable support to the growing community of small solar companies.  The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) must also step up and do its part to support the growing solar markets and achieve the jobs, economic growth and healthy environment that solar energy can provide.

While there have been several developments in the past 12 months, Tennessee’s potential to become a leader in solar energy has been apparent for several years.  In 2002, the state’s Million Solar Roofs Program was launched to eliminate barriers to growth in Tennessee’s solar markets.  This was followed, in 2003, by the creation of TVA’s Generation Partners program that provides financial incentives for the installation and operation of renewable energy technologies.  In 2007, The U.S. Department of Energy designated Knoxville as one of 25 Solar America Cities.  Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s Tennessee Director of Renewables, Gil Melear-Hough, serves as the project coordinator for the Knoxville Solar America Cities Program that provides education and policy development to encourage the growth of solar markets in and around Knoxville.

Governor Bredesen and staff at the announcement of the Volunteer State Solar Initiative
Governor Bredesen and staff at the announcement of the Volunteer State Solar Initiative

In recent years, Governor Bredesen’s administration has also taken the bull by the horns.  It has aggressively recruited multi-billion dollar investments from companies that manufacture solar components.  Sharp, AGC Flat Glass, Hemlock Semiconductor, and Wacker Chemie AG either now have facilities located in Tennessee or have committed to locate future facilities in the state.

The Governor’s administration has also been active in developing local markets for energy efficiency and renewable energy products.  In 2006, Tennessee’s Department of Economic and Community Development began offering the Tennessee Clean Energy Technology grant (TN-CET) that provides up to $75,000 to for-profit businesses for the installation of renewable energy technologies.

Also, the Governor’s Task Force on Energy Policy, which included  Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s Board President John Noel, worked throughout 2008 to focus the state on the economic development opportunities from energy efficiency, solar and other clean energy resources.  As a result of this process, the state legislature passed the Tennessee Clean Energy Future Act that will increase energy efficiency throughout the state and provide tax incentives for renewable energy companies locating in Tennessee.

Most recently, The Governor’s proposed Volunteer State Solar Initiative, funded through Recovery Act allocations, will continue to build Tennessee’s solar markets.  The Initiative has two components: a solar farm and a solar institute.  The 5 MW West Tennessee Solar Farm which will be owned by the University of Tennessee and whose construction will be overseen by Genera Energy, will showcase Tennessee-made solar technologies and provide educational opportunities on the potential for solar energy in Tennessee.  In addition, the Solar Institute, to be located on the UT campus in Knoxville, will provide $23.5 million in grants for solar installation, workforce development and technical assistance.

Governor Bredesen’s administration should be commended for recognizing Tennessee’s potential to achieve economic growth and environmental health through the development of the state’s solar resources.  These programs have helped create small but robust markets for distributed solar generation, markets that have enormous potential for continued growth in coming years.

Bureaucratic red tape has impacted state programs designed to advance local renewable energy markets
Bureaucratic red tape is impacting Tennessee's clean energy programs.

However, significant pieces of the puzzle remain unfulfilled that, if implemented, would further accelerate the growth and development of these markets.  State programs that foster the widespread installation of small- and medium-scale solar technologies must be streamlined to ensure reliable support for qualified projects.  The TN-CET program, for example, has been tied up in bureaucratic wrangling for several months, delaying the disbursement of these funds and causing frustration among businesses with projects waiting to be installed.  Eliminating the bureaucracy and ensuring that these funds are rapidly distributed to qualifying projects is critical to the growth of these markets.  Minimizing bureaucratic wrangling and maximizing the installation of solar technologies should also be priorities for the grant programs that will be administered by the Solar Institute.

Commissioner Kisber’s editorial also touches on another element that is vital for continuing the industry’s growth trajectory: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  TVA has yet to make any firm commitments to developing solar resources.  In fact, TVA continues to resist the development of any of the significant renewable energy resources in the Valley, whether wind, solar or biomass.  The unwillingness to commit to these resources means that TVA currently receives only 0.02% of its electricity from renewable resources other than hydro.  While TVA has recently announced the purchase of 450 MW of wind energy from North Dakota, this is still a relatively small amount of energy for the nation’s largest public power provider and continues to miss the opportunity for creating jobs and economic growth in Tennessee by developing local renewable resources.

TVA's over-reliance on coal and nuclear may eventually limit the solar industry's potential in Tennessee
TVA's over-reliance on coal and nuclear may eventually limit the solar industry's potential in Tennessee

For the solar industry to see Tennessee as a growing market worth future investments, a long-term, stable commitment by TVA must accompany the investments made by the state.    Commissioner Kisber is correct when he says that solar companies will gravitate towards states whose utilities show a commitment to expanding solar generation and demonstrate strong markets for solar products.

The potential for jobs to be created by growing solar markets extends beyond those offered by large solar manufacturing companies.  Because solar energy creates more jobs per megawatt than any other energy resource, a commitment by TVA to develop the Valley’s solar resources would also result in thousands more jobs for contractors, salespersons, electricians, and certified solar technicians throughout the state.

If TVA is unwilling to step up to the challenge, we will miss a huge opportunity, not only for sustained job creation and economic growth, but also for the greenhouse gas and air pollution reductions that come with develop renewable energy resources.  We are hopeful that TVA’s integrated resource planning process, currently underway, and an influx of newly appointed Board members will result in strong commitments by TVA to begin pursuing the Valley’s renewable energy resources.

Tennessee should be proud of how far they’ve come in becoming a leader in clean, renewable energy, but we shouldn’t take our eyes off the critical next steps to strengthening Tennessee’s solar markets.  The effective implementation of state programs is critical, but TVA must also begin to take ownership over these developing markets and approach solar, and other renewable energy options, as resources on par with traditional resources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.  This shouldn’t be a pet project for TVA — it must be a serious commitment.

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