Solar Power in East TN: A Gift for the Kids

Published January 2, 2013

Story published: 12-26-2012 in Herald & Tribune, Jonesborough, Tenn. By Frances Lamberts

For clean, alternative energy, our town and the metro area don’t look like some European counterparts yet, but we are heading there.

As visiting journalist Christian Roselund reports from Freiburg, Germany, when its children go to school in the morning and its residents to work, they pass dozens of solar installations.

They see solar panels on homes, churches, the soccer stadium, the roofs of schools and the façade of the main train station.

There are “solar housing” developments and a “solar business park.”

All told, the city’s photo-voltaic installations “produce enough electricity to meet the needs of tens of thousands of homes.”

Wind turbines on hilltops within city boundaries contribute more natural, pollution-free electric energy.

Grover Hickman’s solar PV installation in Gray, preceded and aided by a small roof-mounted wind turbine, in 2007 became the Johnson City Power Board’s first “Generation Partners” clean-energy supplier.

Alternative energy installations such as his, sponsored under Green Power Switch, unfortunately were halted early in 2010 by a TVA imposed moratorium.

As the Tennesseean then reported, “costly mega-projects by opportunistic investors” were depleting the allocated funds whose principal, intended target had been “smaller solar installations [that] homeowners and businesses want.”

Paul Sutton, manager of a local installation company (Lightwave Solar), states that TVA supported systems now are designed to “zero out an owner’s electric bill.”

TVA purchases all the electricity the system produces, at a favorable 19-cents per kilowatt hour reimbursement, while the residential electricity rate is currently less than 10 cents.

To assure adherence to all grid-connection, safety and other relevant guidelines, applications must be approved by the Power Board and the TVA.

For small systems, from first site visit, consultation and design by a certified installer, to “commissioning” when the sun begins powering the home, the process typically takes less than three months.

Under the TVA contract, the owner locks in the favorable power-purchase reimbursement for 20 years.

For very large systems (above 50 kilowatt generation capacity), Sutton indicates that large down payments and high financial assurance requirements must now be met, TVA pays a less favorable premium price for the power produced, and the certification process takes longer.

A new residential solar installation on Cherokee Street in Jonesborough is about to join some 30 others that VA now helps fund under the “Green Power Provider Program,” in the JCPB service area alone.

As home owner Ignacy Fonberg sees it, with the JCPB “essentially paying for our monthly use, under this program,” the previous electric-bill payments can go toward payment for installing the system.

With federal funding support of 30 percent of installed cost now available, and an added TVA sum for the installation, it will be paid off in a decade or less.

But power production is guaranteed for at least 15 years longer, making the investment payback for a solar-supplied home, Fonberg adds, “better by far than any interest you can earn at the bank.”

Solar power for our buildings makes a lasting gift, as well, to the planet’s children.