Generating clean energy—and interest—in
A new 5 MW solar farm at the
University of Tennessee is generating clean energy; it's also
generating a lot of interest—and education—in solar power
in Tennessee and the southeastern U.S.
The University of Tennessee inKnoxville is in the business of
education, and that charge even carried through to the recently
dedicated 5 megawatt solar farm that the university was involved in
Strategically located along Interstate 40 about 50 miles east of
Memphis, the West Tennessee Solar Farm was built in a semi-circle to
allow for the subsequent construction of an educational visitors'
One exhibit already in the works is Spectrum, an interactive solar
The center (which will showcase not just solar, but other forms of
clean energy as well) and the accompanying highway interchange are
slated for completion by the end of 2013, said Paula Flowers, a
consultant and president of Enovation Group LLC in Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, who acted as the project manager for the university research
"The farm isn't just for power generation," Flowers said. "It's also
demonstrating clean power technology and educating people."
Ben Fischer, president of Chattanooga-based Signal Energy LLC, the
solar farm's design/build contractor, agreed.
"It's unique because it was designed in a way that would allow for the
Tennessee Department of Transportation visitors' center in the middle
of the array," Fischer said. "They'll be able to use that as an
educational tool and show this type of installation is viable in the
state of Tennessee."
The 10 million or so drivers annually on I-40 won't have difficulty
seeing the solar farm. At 5 MW, it is the largest solar facility in
Tennessee and the Tennessee Valley Authority's seven-state service
area. It's also one of the largest in the Southeast U.S.
The Tennessee State Department of Economic and Community Development
first approached the university about the project in 2010, Flowers
said. At the time, then-Governor Phil Bredesen was evaluating what
types of projects to submit to the Department of Energy (DOE) for
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or economic stimulus,
"Governor Bredesen would rather do three projects worth $100 each than
100 projects worth $3 apiece," Flowers said about the governor's
approach of doing only a few large projects.
He conceived the Volunteer State Solar Initiative, a comprehensive
solar energy and economic development program. The goal of the program
was twofold: create jobs and position the state for long-term growth in
solar energy development.
The West Tennessee Solar Farm was one of two projects contained in the
initiative. The other involved a partnership between the University of
Tennessee's Tennessee Solar Institute and Oak Ridge National Laboratory
to improve the affordability and efficiency of solar products.
The Department of Economic and Community Development applied for, and
received, a grant from the DOE. It then allocated $31 million to the
University of Tennessee's Research Foundation for the solar farm and
$23.5 million to the Tennessee Solar Institute.
Signal Energy became involved after the university research foundation
awarded it the contract to design and build the project.
Fischer said that from the start, the project was different from many
other utility-scale projects owned by independent developers that
negotiated power purchase agreements (PPA) with the benefactor.
In this case, the university owns the land on which the project sits
and will own and operate the solar project itself.
"So they wanted a well-designed system that also followed all of the
unique state and federal requirements of a project of this type,"
All of the power that's generated is sold to the Tennessee Valley
Authority. Proceeds will be used to operate, maintain, and expand the
array as well as fund education and demonstration-related activities.
The university was responsible for selecting and procuring the 200-acre
site for the solar farm and educational center, Flowers said.
The site had to be flat, have an unrestricted view of the sun, have
good highway visibility, have easy potential highway access, and be
between Memphis and Jackson. The Haywood County site met all of those
The university also conducted environmental reviews, obtained the
necessary permits, and took care of the initial ground preparation
contracts, Fischer said.
Because the project was funded through an ARRA grant, contractors had
to meet "Buy American" requirements. That meant that if two products
were the same and one was manufactured in the United States, the
project had to use the domestic product.
As part of the Volunteer State Solar Initiative, the project also had
to meet "Buy Tennessee" requirements.
"I can say that we had very good companies that have offices based here
in Tennessee that partnered with us in the project," Fischer said.
"Everything from the transformers manufactured up the road to the
inverter cabinets manufactured right here in Chattanooga, which is
where our office is."
He was referring to the ERMCO transformers from Dyersburg, Tennessee,
and Lectrus inverter cabinets. In addition, BESCO, headquartered in
Knoxville, served as electrical contractor.
Construction began in July 2011. The project involved about 21,434
fixed-tilt ground-mounted crystalline silicon panels from Suniva Inc.
of Norcross, Georgia.
Fischer said they chose those panels because of their low maintenance
and proven technology.
"It's American technology designed right here in the southeast that has
consistently ranked among the best for cell efficiency," Fischer said.
"When we looked to the buy American requirement and considered the
options that were out there, as well as the cost and quality and the
ability to achieve the highest output and the lowest cost of energy,
the choices all pointed to Suniva to be the best choice for the
The project also involved 761 Solar FlexRacks from Solar FlexRack of
Youngstown, Ohio. Fischer said they were chosen because of the
technology involved and their ease of installation.
Strategically located along
Interstate 40 about 50 miles east of Memphis, the 5 MW West Tennessee
Solar Farm was built in a semi-circle to allow for the subsequent
construction of an educational visitors' center.
"It's a fold-out rack pre-manufactured for very quick installation in
the field," he said. "It's like an accordion that fans out that's just
the right size to slip in the panels one by one."
A three-person crew can install a rack in five minutes compared to a
six-person crew requiring 45 minutes with competitors' products,
according to the Solar FlexRack website.
Nine inverters manufactured by SMA America LLC, Rocklin, California,
were used to convert the DC current to AC.
Fischer said the project took longer than expected to complete because
of the numerous approvals needed from the different government entities.
"There are additional hoops to jump through to be able to meet the
requirements of state or federal funded projects, so they typically
take longer to build," he said. "But government investments in solar
energy, like the West Tennessee Solar Farm, help put our country back
in its rightful position as a global leader in clean energy
The semi-circle design also created design and installation challenges,
"We had to try to maintain as much of the existing terrain while still
keeping an efficient design," he said. "Normally we lay them out as
close as possible while taking into account the shade impact."
The semi-circle design meant additional wiring was required compared to
a more compact design, he said.
Signal Energy also had to design the system with future expansion of
another 5 MW in mind.
The power generated from the solar farm is fed into the TVA grid. But
to get there, the project had to upgrade a substation and nine miles of
transmission lines owned by Chickasaw Electric Cooperative in
Before the West Tennessee Solar Farm, the rural cooperative had little,
if any, experience with solar, Flowers said.
In the process, they received an education about utility-scale solar.
"I think what Chickasaw picked up from the project, they've been able
to share with other rural cooperatives," she said. "The university has
developed an entire network now of small contractors and solar
installers and utility companies."
Fischer said he is looking forward to the opening of the educational
center next year because Signal Energy will be able to give clients a
firsthand look at the solar potential of Tennessee and the southeast
U.S. in general.
"Certainly, Tennessee has a much better insolation than Germany, which
is a world leader," says Fischer. "Now obviously, the southwest has
much better insolation characteristics. From a comparable basis, if you
look at the maps that are available on the National Renewable Energy
Laboratory (NREL) website, you will find west Tennessee has very good