Solar installations heating up for Memphis area businesses

Published September 21, 2012

Memphis Commercial Appeal – Posted September 12, 2012 at midnight, updated September 16, 2012 at 12:07 a.m.

By Thomas Bailey Jr.


A winery, two self-storage firms, an electric and telephone supply business and a real estate developer were among 13 potential customers drawn last week to LightWave Solar's lunch-and-learn in the swanky clubhouse at the River Tower at South Bluffs.

Five of them proved to be keenly interested in having up to a 50-kilowatt solar array installed.

August's lunch-and-learn session led to three sales.

A slight sense of urgency pervaded the swanky clubhouse at the River Tower at South Bluffs. As the cost of installing solar panels comes down, so does the level of TVA's incentives. The next big deadline is Dec. 31 to qualify a solar installation before the more lucrative incentives scale back some more.

LightWave designs and installs solar panel arrays, and its prospective customers on Thursday peppered the firm's Peter Calandrucccio with questions.

Does LightWave help write grant applications? (Yes).

Can one business with three separate sites get TVA incentives for each? (Yes).

How much roof space is needed? (A 50 KW system needs 6,000-7,000 square feet).

Do North Mississippi businesses qualify for incentives? (Yes, as long as they are in the TVA region).

What is the panels' life expectancy? (Guaranteed 25 years but they're expected to last up to 40 years).

What if my building doesn't face south? (A ground-mounted system could be installed).

The cost to install the 208 rooftop panels needed for a 49,920-watt system is $201,245, Calandruccio, an architect, told his audience.

But incentives include a federal tax credit, depreciation allowance, a $1,000 installation rebate, and TVA buying back the solar-generated power for 12 cents per kilowatt hour more than customers pay for a kilowatt hour. For example, if TVA charges a retail rate of 10 cents per kilowatt hour, the agency will pay 22 cents for power generated by a customer's solar array.

So solar-power generators can recoup $88,000 of that $201,000 cost in the first year and break even by the fifth year, Calandruccio said.

TVA's new incentives program, Green Power Providers, will replace the existing Generation Partners program starting Oct. 1, but will keep intact until Dec. 31 the opportunity to lock in the 12-cent solar premium for the next 10 years.

TVA has not announced how much the premium will drop after Jan. 1, but it is expected to fall to 5 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

The largest system allowed to get the 12-cent premium is 50 kilowatts, which fits a medium- to small-size business. By comparison, the average Memphis home would use 15,000 kilowatt hours a year, said TVA spokesman Mike Bradley.

The size restriction for the incentive is why the lunch-and-learn focused on systems of 50 KW or smaller. But the premium paybacks for arrays larger than 10 KW won't apply to power exceeding the average power consumption of the previous 12 months.

The new Green Power Providers program involves a 20-year contract, with the 12 cent buyback rate locked in for years 1-10. The base, retail rate will be paid years 11-20.

"It's important that participants realize Green Power Providers is a sustainable, long term program," TVA's Bradley said.

Participants in the Generation Partners program, which ends Sept. 30, will get 10-year agreements for 12 cent premium with an opportunity to extend those

agreements for 10 years during which they get the base, or retail rate only.

"Green Power Providers participants that sign on after Oct. 1 and before Dec. 31 will get a 20-year contract with a 12 cent premium for first 10 years and retail rate only in years 11-20," Bradley said.

The old Generation Partners program "exploded" with success, Bradley said. "It has been a tremendous factor in the growth of the solar industry across our area."

Three years ago the TVA region generated 1 megawatt of solar; now, more than 60 megawatts is on line "and we have probably twice that in the pipeline," Bradley said.

Memphis dentist Scott Edwards jumped on board relatively early when incentives were higher. In June 2010, he spent $94,000 installing solar panels on the roof of his East Memphis office at 6250 Poplar.

"Back then, part of the stimulus package was a grant from the State of Tennessee," Edwards said. "I got a $36,000 grant. You got lots of tax credits and other things that make it financially feasible."

His monthly electric bills for the building have plunged from about $850 to about $190, and Edwards calculates he'll break even after the sixth year.He credits his late son, Ryan, for encouraging him to install the solar. Edwards initially intended to stick the panels on the back side of the building and out of view. "Ryan said, 'They've got to face the south, and you want people to see it. That will be a source of new patients.'

Edwards recalled laughing at the time, but Ryan was right. Just last week the panels drew another new patient, who wrote on a form that he was referred by "solar panels."

Now, Edwards is leading the fundraising effort to install solar panels to power the buildings at St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School.

North of there, Inman Solar, another design/install firm, is helping the owners of the 98,000-square-foot Gattas Plaza prepare to install a 50 KW system atop its roof at 5000 Summer.

Tom Gattas, managing partner for the landlord GCI Partners, calculates the return on investment for the $200,000 project will be eight to 10 years.

"It's an exciting time," said Jeff O'Connor. He represents Inman Solar, which has completed or is working on about a dozen projects in the Memphis area.

He's much busier installing solar panels for businesses than residents, primarily, O'Connor said, because the commercial incentives help return all the investment in about half the time it takes for residential.