Larisa Brass: State’s solar strategists’ hopes not dimmed for industry

Tennessee’s solar industry appeared ready to shine when two of the world’s largest companies involved in the manufacture of photovoltaic panels announced plans to invest billions in the state.

Four years later, global economics and local policy have raised questions about the brightness of the alternative energy’s future.

Hemlock Semiconductor and Wacker Chemie have both delayed their production for the polysilicon used to make solar panels. Hemlock laid off 300 employees at its $1.2 billion plant in Clarksville, Tenn. before production began, while Wacker Chemie has slowed construction of its Cleveland, Tenn., plant with an eye towards postponing its opening until 2015.

In Georgia, following a state-mandated, 50-megawatt pilot project, the utility has chosen to develop 260 additional megawatts of solar power, which will be purchased at no additional cost to customers and reflects the energy source’s increasing affordability.
Volkswagen invested in solar energy because of its environmental commitment, not to save money right away, says Guenther Scherelis, the company’s Chattanooga spokesman.

The 33-acre installation helped Volkswagen become the first automotive plant in the world to achieve the U.S. Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification.

“Sustainability is one of our core values of the group,” Scherelis says. “We assume that in the long-term, energy prices will go up.”

Matt Kisber says changes in state incentives, a potential property tax increase for solar installations and cutbacks in TVA programs promoting renewable energy have made solar development in Tennessee more difficult. “My sense is companies want to locate and do business in states and communities where they feel appreciated and wanted,” he says. “The state needs to have policies that support their activities. … Georgia has taken our place (in developing solar as a power source). And they’re doing it for economic development objectives. There are a number of other Southeastern states that are actively recruiting (solar manufacturers).”

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