March 9, 2009

Solar America City/Knoxville: One Fast-Moving Group of Overachievers

Just last March, the City of Knoxville became a Solar America City. In that short time, the Knoxville team has achieved enviable results, like their free ‘Solar 101 Basics” workshops where more than 100 residents and business representatives have attended; the collaboration with Pellissippi State Technical Community College, their local community college, to build a…

Just last March, the City of Knoxville became a Solar America City. In that short time, the Knoxville team has achieved enviable results, like their free ‘Solar 101 Basics” workshops where more than 100 residents and business representatives have attended; the collaboration with Pellissippi State Technical Community College, their local community college, to build a green curriculum for the 21st Century, a ‘Green Jobs and Education Opportunities’ conference in April, and training local building and code officials in PV and solar thermal technologies.

“They’re getting a well-deserved reputation as a group of over-achievers,” said Curt Maxey, Tiger Team lead for Knoxville from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Madeleine and her team are absolutely delightful to work with. The energy and responsiveness that the Knoxville team has shown has really made it an honor to participate with them.”

Curt was dead on. This is one fast-moving group of over-achievers. Here’s IREC’s conversation with the Director of Knoxville’s Solar America Program, Madeleine Weil, and Knoxville’s Sustainability Special Assistant, Erin Burns, on Knoxville as a Solar America City:

IREC: It looks like you’re coming up on your one-year anniversary of becoming a Solar America City. Any special plans for your birthday?

EB: Well, we’re not really as old as we seem. Although we received notice that we had been selected for the grant in March of last year, it took a few months to make everything official and for the funding to get to us. We officially kicked off our Knoxville Solar America Cities initiatives in October. Since then we have stayed busy working through our Project Plan and getting a lot of our initiatives off the ground. By the time our “October Birthday” rolls around, we hope to see new installations around town that went up in part because of our efforts throughout the year. That would be cause for a Solar Celebration!

IREC: Well, it looks like you’ve wasted no time getting things moving quickly. The website is really very well done with lots of information about your activities. Well done. So what, or rather who, inspired the City to apply to become a Solar America City? Participation in the initiative is a serious commitment. Was it easy getting buy-in from would-be partners?

EB: The City of Knoxville Energy & Sustainability Task Force, led by Madeleine Weil (who’s now the Director of our Solar America Program) deserves the credit for mobilizing the application for the grant. The Solar America Initiative provided a unique opportunity for Knoxville to make a coordinated commitment to promoting solar power locally and was too good to pass up. Fortunately, the Energy & Sustainability initiative had already built a lot of the partnerships necessary to make the application successful and find the matching grant funds. Our partners understood the great potential here in Knoxville to grow solar technologies and were ready and willing to take part. Their generous contributions of time and funding (TVA provided a $100,000 match for the grant) made it possible to apply for the grant and continue to make our program successful.

MW: That’s right. In fact, several of our Task Force members originally brought the grant to my attention. Oak Ridge National Lab and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy had recently co-hosted the First Southeast Solar Summit, and the SAC program seemed like a natural follow-up.

IREC: You assembled quite the team: the utility, the transit and building authorities, the Dept. of Economic and Community Development, TVA, Gil Melear-Hough from Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Oak Ridge National Lab and Florida Solar Energy Center. Tennessee’s got two NABCEP-certified installers–who’s doing what?

EB: The partnership between all of these entities is perhaps the greatest strength of our program here in Knoxville. By joining together all of the major players in energy generation, distribution and consumption, our program is positioned to find the best solutions to challenges, make smarter choices, and take advantage of more opportunities. The combined experience, interests, and abilities of our partners has helped us design a program that has huge potential to benefit our entire community and ultimately share our successes and lessons-learned to other communities in the state and region.

Once a month, we sit down with representatives from each of our major partners and update each other on the progress of our initiatives and share insight about how to strengthen our program. To keep things moving steadily, we all leave with specific tasks to accomplish before the next meeting. Typically, these tasks play to the natural strengths of each of the partners, so we feel we’re maximizing both participation and effectiveness by engaging so many people and abilities.

Gil Melear-Hough from Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is contracted as Project Coordinator for the Knoxville Program. He has extensive experience working throughout the state on solar energy issues, and his connections to leaders in solar policy and industry and his knowledge about solar technology has proven invaluable to our program. He’s been a huge resource to not only our project partners, but also to the community-residents, businesses, and solar installers.

As we promote solar technologies to local residents and businesses, we’re also promoting the local installer community. We’d love to see as much business as possible “kept local” so we can grow the local solar economy.

IREC: That sounds like an efficient way to keep things on track. So how’s everyone’s ‘to do’ list coming along (i.e., PV at the new transit center, installation at the iJams Nature Center, solarizing affordable housing)?

EB: Our initiatives are shaping up nicely! The new Transit Center is under construction, and we’ll have the RFP for the installation of the solar panels ready soon so they’ll be up and running on opening day. To accompany the panels, we’re in the process of designing a really nice exhibit that transit-users can visit while waiting for their bus–the exhibit will showcase the solar panels and the role of solar technology in a clean, green Knoxville future. At Ijams Nature Center, construction has already started on an exhibit highlighting how and why residents should use solar technologies in their home. We’ve also been involved with our local chamber of commerce to start reaching out to the business community to find ways to grow solar-related industries and professions here in Knoxville. One of our biggest accomplishments so far has been public outreach and education through our solar workshops.

IREC: My very next question. Looks like a lot of training/education is happening, both for consumers (i.e, ‘solar basics for home and business,’ solar installation training classes at Pellissippi State, and an upcoming ‘Green Jobs & Education Opportunities’ next month. Whew. Are classes sold out? Is registration for the April conference looking good?

EB: This is one of the most exciting components of our project–in just a few short months, we are already seeing significant growth on both the supply and demand sides of the local solar market. On the demand side, our free “Solar 101 Basics” workshops have been a huge success: over 100 residents and business representatives have attended to learn more about solar technologies and how to start “going solar”, and local installers are already reporting increased interest from workshop attendants. On the supply side, we’ve worked with a local community college to build a new curriculum of “green” courses, some of which will help a new set of professionals learn the skills necessary for starting out in the solar business. We’re hoping our “Green Jobs & Education Opportunities” session next month will help inspire even more people to pursue a career in our emerging green industries. We’re also making sure we take advantage of opportunities to offer “on the ground” training for installers and other people that will cross paths with solar technologies–for instance, we’re very excited about partnering with IREC to offer local building officials, code enforcers, and electrical inspectors a training workhop on photovoltaics and the electrical code.

IREC: Good to hear that you’re partnering with IREC on the code and building officials training. As you know, they’re critical players in inspecting and approving solar PV and thermal systems. If they’re unfamiliar with the technologies, their lack of understanding could result in systems being shut down or not being approved. Sounds like you’ve had measurable success so far, but surely you’ve had some challenges: bureaucratic red tape? lack of consumer awareness, or conversely, consumer demand for installations performed by qualified installers? What about the current economic crisis: has the market downturn made it more difficult to sell the rebates to consumers and keep installers busy?

EB: Before the program started, solar installations were pretty rare in Knoxville, so one of the biggest challenges has simply been raising public awareness about solar. Our workshops and the publicity of our program initiatives have really helped chip away at this barrier by “bringing solar into the light” and helping show people that it is a practical and attractive way to help power our community. We’ve still got a long way to go before it’s a widely accepted and utilized technology, but we are making progress! It’s been great to talk to local installers recently, many of whom have actually reported increased business, even in this economy! An unexpected challenge we’ve encountered has been explaining local incentive opportunities on a national stage. TVA’s Green Power Switch Generation Partners Program offers a great payback for those who want to install solar and see some financial gains. Unfortunately, because it’s not set up with a traditional net metering program and is hard to categorize compared to other programs across the nation, sometimes the benefits it offers and the fact that it even exists get “lost in translation.”

MW: Up-front capital costs remain a big hurdle, particularly on the residential side. The State of TN has an excellent grant program which, if coupled with federal tax credits and Generation Partners, can bring payback for PV systems down to 5-6 years. But there isn’t anything like this available on the residential side.

IREC: So are you referring to the Tennessee Clean Energy Technology Grant? Do you think the new stimulus package, along with the eight-year extension of the ITC will change the solar landscape in TN for residential customers?

EB: Yep, that grant program is the Tennessee Clean Energy Technology Grant-it’s a huge incentive to help commercial businesses pay for solar PV. We think the eight-year extension of the ITC will also help keep people interested in solar; it’s particularly important for companies on the supply-side of solar, since it will help secure demand for their products and services for quite a while. As for the impact of the stimulus, can anyone tell? We’d love to see stimulus money help expand state incentive programs-there’s still a need for incentives for residents and non-taxed entities like governments, churches, and non-profits.

MW: The state will receive millions of dollars for renewable energy programs through the stimulus package and, clearly, encouraging growth of clean energy industries in Tennessee is a big priority for them. They’ve already demonstrated willingness to invest in creating manufacturing jobs in the supply-side of the solar industry. We believe we will soon see them addressing the demand side of the equation by creating additional installation incentives, or expanding existing incentive programs. We’re also taking a look at what we might be able to do locally through the Energy Conservation Block Grants.

IREC: You are all enormously busy. Dare I ask what’s in the queue for the rest of 2008?

EB: Whew! 2009 is already shaping up to be an exciting year! By the end of the year, we should have a spiffy new website online that will be a lasting educational and outreach resource, complete with a solar payback calculator, lots of info, and maybe a solar mapping feature. We’ll also have completed one of our exhibits at Ijams Nature Center and will be working on a second, outdoor exhibit for that organization. We’re right now in the process of sorting through the challenges of reconciling solar installations with historical zoning regulations, so hopefully we’ll have broken down some barriers there. Through our workshops and curriculum-building efforts, we also hope to continue improving the solar supply and demand markets here in Knoxville.

MW: Our economic development partners in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley are targeting clean energy as a real growth opportunity for job development in this area. Just in the last few months, Tennessee has landed two $ Billion dollar polysilicon manufacturing plants. I hope that we’ll see additional businesses in the clean energy supply chain moving to set up shop nearby in 2009.

IREC: Was that a surprise…getting the polysilicon manufacturing plants to TN? Anything else surprised you about this work?

EB: One of the most surprising (and exciting) aspects about this project has been the enthusiasm it has sparked. Given the low deployment of solar in Knoxville even just a year ago, it’s been wonderful to see how quickly so many people have started talking seriously about installing solar. It seems like the energy and conversation generated by the Solar America Cities Program was just the boost our community needed to start thinking seriously about “going solar.” It’s been great to realize that the further we progress into the project, the more potential we see for growth.

IREC: It may be gratuitous to encourage you to keep up the remarkable work you’re doing in Knoxville, ladies (and gents, also). The results you’ve achieved in such a short time are inspiring.

For more information about Knoxville’s Solar America Cities Program, visit the website, or contact Erin Burns at (865) 215-2065 or Gil Melear-Hough at (865) 789-5482.