Investments in solar energy and electric vehicles are expected to create nearly 17,000 permanent jobs in Tennessee

In December 2008, a spill at a coal-fired power plant near Harriman, Tenn., sent a billion gallons of contaminated coal sludge spilling across the community and countryside, underscoring the urgency of switching to clean energy. Tennessee’s residents use more electricity per person than any other state in the nation. Most of the state’s electricity comes from coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power, nearly all of it produced by the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).[1]

Tennessee has only recently begun to focus on developing clean, locally produced, renewable energy. With more than 80,000 farms covering 11.4 million acres,[2] Tennessee could become a leading producer of cellulosic ethanol, the biofuel of the future. The state is also throwing its weight behind a nascent solar industry, and will soon be home to one of the largest solar arrays in the southeast. Investments in the solar and electric vehicle industries are expected to create nearly 17,000 jobs in Tennessee by 2014.[3]

The renewables map shows current and future Tennessee facilities generating energy from wind, biomass, solar power and biogas.

Solar Energy

solar panel installation

Sharp's solar panel manufacturing plant in Memphis has expanded capacity three times since 2003

Tennessee’s solar power industry is gathering steam, creating new sources of clean, renewable energy and hundreds of jobs around the state. Tennessee’s $23.5 million Solar Opportunity Fund, part of the Volunteer State Solar Initiative, has helped support local solar manufacturers and installers, as well as consumers.[4] Some of the projects enabled by these grants include a 50-kilowatt rooftop array at a Wrigley’s plant in Chattanooga, where Altoids mints are made, and a 10-kilowatt system on the roof of a stable at Chucky Creek Farm, a horse farm in Greene County.[5]

The initiative is also funding the construction and installation of the West Tennessee Solar Farm, a 5-megawatt array that will be one of the largest in the southeast when it is completed in 2012. The farm will be prominently located on 200 acres of land adjacent to I-40 in Haywood County, and will also have a visitor’s center.[6]

The Tennessee Valley Authority owns and operates several solar power arrays throughout Tennessee and neighboring states, many of them in high-profile locations such as Dollywood in Pigeon Forge and the Adventure Science Center in Nashville.[7]

TVA also purchases power from Tennessee's largest solar array, a 1-megawatt system in Jackson, Tenn., which also powers a portion of the electricity for the American Drive Business Center. The project's 5,000 solar PV panels were manufactured in Tennessee by Sharp, in Memphis, which has expanded its production capacity three times since 2003.[8]

Other solar manufacturers are setting up shop in Tennessee as well, including Wacker Chemie AG, which makes polysilicon, the raw material for solar panels. Workers broke ground on a new facility near Cleveland, Tenn., in 2011. The plant is expected to create 650 jobs. Hemlock Semiconductor is hiring 500 full-time employees at its new polysilicon production facility in Clarksville, Tenn. The $1.2 billion plant is scheduled to begin production in late 2012.[9]

Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is another major player in the solar industry, through research and development and its own solar capabilities. The Solar Technologies Program has won awards for its hybrid solar lighting system, which uses rooftop solar collectors and a system of optical fibers to funnel sunlight into semi-electric light fixtures throughout the building. The system maximizes efficiency by gauging the level of daylight and dimming when natural light is abundant.[10] In addition, the lab's east campus has a photovoltaic array -- made by Sharp Electronics of Memphis -- that feeds electrical power into the local grid, subtracting about 9,000 kilowatt-hours from the lab's own electricity bill.[11]

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service have developed a system of solar water pumps for livestock watering. Powered by photovoltaic panels, these efficient, low-volume systems pump two to four gallons of water per minute from a natural body of water to a more-accessible tank on the farm.[12]

Biomass Energy and Cellulosic Ethanol

farmers in field of switchgrass

Credit: Gretz, Warren - NREL Staff Photographer

Vonore, Tennessee is home to one of the world’s first cellulosic ethanol plants

Tennessee is poised to become a national leader in the development of advanced biofuels. The best biofuels protect the environment and food supplies while improving the economic welfare of workers and communities. Cellulosic ethanol, which is made from crop waste and non-food crops, such as switchgrass, is the biofuel of the future. It can produce four to ten times as much energy as corn ethanol without swallowing up huge tracts of food-growing farmland or forest.[13]

Researchers at the state's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have found that Tennessee has more than 4.5 million acres of crop land with the right soil and climate conditions for switchgrass cultivation.[14] Not all of the crop land can or should be diverted from its current uses, but if it were, it could potentially grow enough switchgrass to produce several billion gallons of ethanol.

The state has invested $70 million in the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, a research-business collaboration for biofuels development. Through the initiative, scores of Tennessee farmers have planted about 7,000 acres of switchgrass within a 50-mile radius of a pilot cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Vonore, south of Knoxville. The plant, a joint venture between UT-owned Genera Energy and DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Energy (DDCE), has the capacity to produce 250,000 gallons of ethanol per year from energy crops, including switchgrass, and crop residues, such as corn cobs.[15]

Wind Energy

The Buffalo Mountain Wind Energy Center in Anderson County, Tenn., is the only wind farm in the Southeast. It has 18 turbines and a total capacity of roughly 29 megawatts. The center was built by Vestas, and all of the power it generates is sold to the TVA.[16]

Tennessee ranks 30th in installed wind power nationwide. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the state has the potential to generate 1 percent of its electricity needs from wind. In 2010, wind energy supplied just .1 percent of Tennessee’s electricity.[17] The windiest parts of the state are located along the eastern border with North Carolina.[18]

Renewable Energy Meets Wildland and Wildlife Conservation

Certain sensitive lands -- such as parks, monuments and wildlife conservation areas -- and ecologically sensitive marine areas are not appropriate for energy development. In some of these places, energy development is prohibited or limited by law or policy, and in others it would be highly controversial. NRDC does not endorse locating energy facilities or transmission lines in such areas. Siting decisions must always be made extremely carefully, with impacts mitigated and operations conducted in an environmentally responsible manner.

For more information on the intersection between clean energy development and wildland and wildlife conservation in the American West, including locations of parks, wildlife refuges and other conservation areas, see this Google Earth-based feature.


Economic Incentives for Renewable Energy Projects in Ohio

The TVA’s Green Power Switch program allows residential and commercial customers to purchase 150 kilowatt-hour “blocks” of renewable energy for about $4 a month.

Tennessee offers a Green Energy Tax Credit of up to $1.5 million to industries in the green energy supply chain that invest more than $250 million in the state, as well reduced tax rates for clean energy manufacturers that invest $100 million and create 50 full-time, above-average-wage jobs. Purchasers of clean energy equipment may also apply for a full refund of sales tax. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency lists federal, state and local government incentives for renewable energy projects in Tennessee.

The current Farm Bill offers a number of incentives for renewable energy. The Environmental Law and Policy Center maintains a helpful website called Farm Energy that outlines the current incentives and monitors the development of new ones.

Wind Energy

Tennessee businesses that install wind turbines are eligible for a property-tax exemption. The law states that commercial or municipal wind-energy systems cannot be initially assessed at more than one-third of the total cost to install them.

To help create a market for local clean-energy ventures, participating power distributors in the Tennessee Valley Authority's Green Power Switch Generation Partners program offer incentives to individuals and small-business owners for wind projects. The TVA will purchase the entire electric output of a qualifying residential or small-business wind system at $0.15 per kilowatt-hour, payable as a credit on the customer's residential or commercial electric bill; large businesses are credited at $0.20 per kilowatt-hour. Residential participants can apply for $500 toward startup costs. The resulting "green" power is sold to other residential customers through the state's Green Power Switch program.

Biomass Energy and Cellulosic Ethanol

A practical fact sheet from the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative examines all aspects of growing and harvesting switchgrass for Tennessee farmers.

Tennessee has a number of incentives for the use of alternative fuels, the purchase of an alternative-fuel vehicle, and the construction or purchase of an alternative-fuel refueling station or equipment. See the Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center at the U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Solar Energy

To help create a market for local clean-energy ventures, participating power distributors in the Tennessee Valley Authority's Green Power Switch Generation Partners program offer incentives to individuals and business owners for solar installations. The TVA will purchase the entire electric output of a qualifying residential or small-business system at $0.15 per kilowatt-hour, payable as a credit on the customer's residential or commercial electric bill; large businesses are credited at $0.20 per kilowatt-hour. Residential participants can apply for $500 toward startup costs. The resulting "green" power is sold to other residential customers through the state's Green Power Switch program.

The Tennessee Solar Institute holds informational and technical workshops for consumers and industry, and also administers the Solar Innovation Grant Program. A state easement provision allows property owners to create easements to maintain their access to sunlight, and municipalities to consider solar access when drawing up zoning restrictions.[19]

The University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service has a comprehensive Web brochure on its solar-powered livestock watering systems, including a list of suppliers.

Biogas Energy

The EPA's AgSTAR program has a comprehensive handbook on developing biogas technology. The site includes FarmWare, a free decision-making software package that can help you assess the feasibility of biogas on your farm.

The AgMRC (Agricultural Marketing Resources Center) has a rich list of links and resources on biodigestion.

The Northwest CHP (Combined Heat and Power) Application Center has a fact sheet that helps you ask all the right questions about installing a biodigester on your farm.


  1. [1] http://www.eia.gov/state/state-energy-profiles.cfm?sid=TN
  2. [2] http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Tennessee/index.asp
  3. [3] http://www.sourcetn.org/admin/gsipub/htmlarea/uploads/TNGreenInvestmentStudy.pdf
  4. [4] http://solar.tennessee.edu/solar-funding
  5. [5] http://solar.tennessee.edu/success-stories
  6. [6] http://www.tennessee.edu/media/releases/020311_solarapproval.html
  7. [7] http://www.tva.gov/greenpowerswitch/solar_sites.htm
  8. [8] http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/partner/sharp-solar-energy-solutions-group-2053/news/article/2011/01/tennessees-largest-solar-array-unveiled-today-in-jackson; http://tennesseeeconomicdevelopmentguide.com/tennessee-shines-solar-power-companies
  9. [9] http://www.wacker.com/cms/en/press_media/press-releases/archive2011/pressinformation_2011_detail_26752.jsp; http://www.hscpoly.com/content/hsc_comp/construction_workforce_tops_1600.aspx?wt.svl=HSC_HOME_NEWSBUTTON2Hack
  10. [10] http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/contacts.html
  11. [11] http://www.ornl.gov/ornlhome/news_items/news_080404.shtml
  12. [12] https://utextension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/pb1640.pdf
  13. [13] Worldwatch Institute, "Smart Choices for Biofuels", p.8
  14. [14] http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/reports/graham/appal.html
  15. [15] http://hayandforage.com/hay/cellulosic-ethanol-0129/; http://www.generaenergy.net/what_we_do/genera_biofuels_llc/biorefinery_fact_sheet.aspx
  16. [16] http://www.tva.gov/greenpowerswitch/wind_faq.htm; http://blog.cleanenergy.org/2011/06/30/the-growing-wind-industry-in-tennessee/
  17. [17] http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/reports/upload/1Q-Market-Report_-Public.pdf; http://www.awea.org/learnabout/publications/upload/1Q-11-Tennessee.pdf
  18. [18] http://www.windpoweringamerica.gov/images/windmaps/tn_80m.jpg
  19. [19] http://www.dsireusa.org/library/includes/incentive2.cfm?Incentive_Code=TN01R&state=TN&CurrentPageID=1&RE=1&EE=1
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