The Tennessee Solar Institute’s mission is to promote energy independence and provide a more sustainable future though solar power. However, the reasons for choosing solar power are a little different for agriculture producer Tim Hitchcock of Day Lily Nursery in Rock Island.
“I had always been interested in solar power from the standpoint of energy self-sufficiency and environmental responsibility, plus it just seemed cool,” Hitchcock says.
As a growing industry that offers small agricultural entities clean and efficient results without drastically disturbing the landscape, solar farms are sprouting up all over Tennessee.
The solar farms across the state exist on as little as one acre of land and use ground-mounted photovoltaic (PV) panels, generating 1 megawatt of electricity on around 5,000 panels. The sun’s rays hit the PV panels and are converted from direct current energy to alternating current energy and useable electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the monthly average electricity consumed by a Tennessee home in 2010 was 1,393 kilowatt-hours. One megawatt equals 1,000 kilowatts, so even a one-acre farm can make a big impact on the state’s energy needs.
“We are seeing small ag entities putting solar rays on their dairy barns or in fields to supplement their income,” says Chris Davis, communications manager for the Tennessee Solar Institute at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “The Tennessee Valley Authority pays the producer for all the electricity generated, and the producer buys the energy back at a lower rate.”
Thanks to government grants, Day Lily Nursery is one agribusiness that has added a solar farm.
“The process of applying for the grants was the most time consuming,” Hitchcock says. “The construction went rather smoothly. The income it generates is paying for it in a timely manner, and I have many visitors who love to hear about solar energy.”
Wampler’s Farm Sausage installed two solar systems at its facility in Lenoir City. The systems are topping 500 kilowatts in energy generation, which is saving money that can then be reinvested back into the business.
“The cost of solar electricity is rapidly approaching the cost of electricity produced through traditional means,” says Dr. John Sanseverino, director of programs for the Tennessee Solar Institute. “For many states, Tennessee in particular, that’s an economic driver.”
In addition to comparable prices, solar energy offers many other benefits.
“In contrast to other alternative fuels, solar energy provides clean air, is renewable and decreases dependency on imported oil and coal,” Sanseverino says.
Not only does solar energy help the environment, it also helps Tennessee’s economy.
“The nation’s solar industry grew 69 percent last year, one of the only industries that is seeing growth and job creation during these tough economic times,” Sanseverino says.
Tennessee is out in front in terms of solar energy developed and also solar education. The West Solar Farm of Haywood County has been constructed adjacent to Interstate 40. The solar farm is complete, but the owners plan to build an interactive welcome center to help travelers understand the role of solar energy in lessening energy dependence.