Tennessee’s Solar Industry Faces More Red Tape

Published October 26, 2012

The Tennessean – Posted 3:22 AM, Oct 21, 2012

By G. Chambers Williams III

Some power companies attach fees, extra processes to solar installations

The dropping prices of solar panels have bolstered installations of solar systems in Tennessee. But some industry experts say clashes with electric-power distributors and various local zoning and building regulations threaten to put a damper on potential projects.

“Bureaucrats, paperwork and the utility companies are our biggest problems,” said Steve Johnson, vice president of the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association and founder of Nashville-based LightWave Solar.

While the power distributors in TVA’s seven-state region are mostly solar-friendly, there are cases where they push back against people who produce their own power and want to sell it to the utility.

For instance, the Johnson City (Tenn.) Power Board, the municipal electric utility, has just instituted a $950 up-front charge to allow a home or business solar system to send power to its system, and also adds a $10-a-month solar service charge to the customer’s bill.

“There is an expense involved with installing the meter” and setting up the solar service on the utility’s system, said Johnson City Power Board spokesman J.T. McSpadden.

The $950 application/installation fee would be offset by the $1,000 that TVA provides the home or business to add a solar system, but then that money would not be available to help pay for the solar equipment itself, LightWave’s Johnson said.

Nashville Electric Service doesn’t charge fees for connecting a solar array to its system, but does have some requirements that cause permits to take two to three months to get approved, Johnson said. Among them: A solar permit from NES requires sign-offs by the utility’s chief executive officer, a member of the board of directors and the legal department.

“Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. is the easiest to deal with,” he said. “With them, we can get a permit approved in two weeks.”

At the Duck River Electric Membership Corp. in Shelbyville, Tenn., members are encouraged to install solar systems, and there are no extra charges from the utility, said Brad Gibson, director of member services.

“Yes, we do incur an expense to connect a solar installation, but so far we don’t charge for that,” he said.

Duck River has gone a step farther in pushing solar power by installing its own small solar-generating system outside its headquarters building and inviting its members to buy a limited number of investment “shares” in the project. For $600 each, a member can own a piece of the project, and earn a return on the investment by sharing in the revenues from the power produced.

“It’s a 25-kilowatt project, enough to supply power for about three homes,” Gibson said. “It was built using solar panels made by Sharp Electronics at their plant in Memphis.”

It’s also a great educational took to teach people about green energy, he said — particularly since the project is right next to a high school, middle school and elementary school.