‘Solar champion’ Wampler’s gives boost to uncertain industry – Knoxville News Sentinel

Published October 11, 2011

Knoxville News Sentinel October 7, 2011

By Larisa Brass

Ted Wampler, president of Wampler Farm Sausage Co., unveiled their solar farm Friday, Oct. 7, 2011 which sits on a hillside on their property in Loudon County.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified a solar install site and size

LENOIR CITY — Solar panels perched on the western hillside of Wampler’s Farm Sausage are unique in more ways than one.

The 2,240-panel, 501.76 kilowatt array, which should displace 12-15 percent of the company’s electricity consumption, is believed to be the state’s largest industrial installation. It also may hold that distinction for some time to come.

Local business and government leaders along with members of the Wampler family turned out on a perfectly sunny Friday to dedicate the installation, which has been operational since July.

“We believe that solar technology and clean energy is the way of the future,” said Ted Wampler Jr., president of Wampler’s and the third generation to run the business. “This particular project is the perfect example of a public/private partnership that works.”

The project, which cost $2.4 million, was aided by a $250,000 grant and $1.2 million in loan money through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for American program. The electricity produced by the system also will qualify for special rates, paid to the company in the form of a credit on its bill, through TVA’s Generation Partners program, which pays customers for renewable power they generate onsite.

“For the next several decades, what we’ve done is made Wampler’s Sausage more competitive,” Wampler said, adding that the installation has helped boost the Tennessee economy. The solar panels were manufactured by Sharp Electronics in Memphis. AGC Flat Glass, with several manufacturing locations in the state including Knoxville, produced glass for the panels. Hemlock Semiconductor, readying a manufacturing plant in Clarksville, supplied the silicon raw material for the technology. And Shoals Technologies in Portland provided wiring for the systems.

“This is building the economy through private investment,” Wampler said.

While visiting officials — including U.S. Rep. John Duncan Jr., USDA Rural Development Director for Tennessee Bobby Goode, and representatives from Sharp Electronics in Memphis, where the panels were made, TVA, and Efficient Energy of Tennessee, which installed the system — touted Wampler’s as a “solar champion” for the state, solar developers attending the event talked about the uncertain future of the marketplace.

Shortly after the Wampler project was approved, TVA reduced the size of qualifying installations to 200 kilowatts, and the agency recently announced a further reduction, with the maximum size of qualifying installation now 50 kilowatts. USDA’s rural energy funding could be on the chopping block as Congress hammers out a budget for the upcoming year. Additionally, state grant funds for solar projects have dried up, and a federal tax credit available as an up-front grant has reverted, putting more pressure on companies to come up with investment dollars themselves.

After installing a one megawatt solar system in Knoxville, another in Jackson, Tenn., and two solar systems at Wampler’s — the first was a 28 kilowatt system atop the processor’s roof — Efficient Energy of Tennessee has been seeking new niches of business as local incentives have dried up, according to Robbie Thomas, president of the Powell-based company.

The company is considering regional and national projects for government as well as for customers in more solar-friendly states such as Florida, Virginia and Georgia to fill in the gap.

“(The incentive changes have) made it definitely more challenging,” Thomas said. In addition to the market shifts in Tennessee, other states have gone through solar growing pains, Thomas said, resulting in an unsteadiness in the market even as the price of solar is making it a more attractive investment — if not yet ready to stand on its own.

“There’s a lot of anxiety right now. We’re looking at opportunities everywhere. We’re bidding jobs in the Caribbean and Honduras, Jamaica. I really think (the market) is going to plateau for a time,” Thomas added.

Harvey Abouelata, formerly with Efficient Energy of Tennessee and now territory manager for Choice Solar & Geothermal, said companies will have to “get creative” when it comes to developing an approach to the ever-changing market for solar. And he expressed hope that TVA would consider further modifications to the Generation Partners program.

“We reinvent ourselves every week,” he said.

One Tennessee solar installer, Lightwave Solar, this week distributed a petition generated by the Tennessee Environmental Council requesting that TVA reinstate the 200-kilowatt limit on solar installations.

“It makes good business sense for TVA to invest in the rapid growth of clean, renewable solar power in the valley,” according to a statement describing the petition, posted on Change.org. “One of TVA’s primary missions is its Congressional mandate to promote economic development in the Valley. In light of this, we are calling on TVA to prioritize investment in clean, renewable power over investment in coal and nuclear, and to reinstate the 200 kilowatt maximum project size in their Generation Partners Program.”

© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.