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Solar system meets the 'farm'

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

(Photo)
DREMC's solar farm is already attracting local investors, with 45 signing up so far to put their money in the panels without spending the dough for a system at home, which can cost as much as a new car.
(T-G photo by Brian Mosely) [Order this photo]
Customer investment in Duck River Electric Membership Corporation's (DREMC) new Solar Farm has only been available for a month, but plenty of people are already getting in on the deal.

It's the first solar farm that's been built and owned by a TVA distributor in their area, DREMC President and CEO Jim Allison stated last month when it opened to investors, and is also the first system in the country constructed in a way where a non-profit like DREMC can pass on the ownership to its members.

45 investors

According to DREMC director of member services Brad Gibson, about 45 of DREMC's 71,000 members have put their money into the farm, which generates 25.92 kilowatts (KW) of power for immediate use, as of Friday. A typical home requires from 5 to 10 kilowatts of electric power at a given time.

Gibson said that some customers have invested in two of the 216 available units in the solar farm, located behind the DREMC offices and around 40 others have expressed interest.

Each unit equals one-half of one of the 108 solar panels that make up the three wing-shaped arrays.

Long-term investment

The idea behind the farm is to offer DREMC members in the 17-county service area an opportunity to participate in solar energy production without investing in a home system -- which can cost from $15,000 to $35,000 -- or offering the option for customers whose homes are surrounded by trees or other sun-blocking obstructions.

Customers can invest as little as $600 in the farm, which was built at a cost of $128,000. That investment might mean a return of around $3.50 to $4.50 per month, depending on how much the sun is shining.

It's a 20-year investment, and DREMC has come up with a way to "keep it in the family" so to speak. For example, if someone moves or passes away, they can transfer it to another DREMC member.

"You can donate it to a church or another organization, as long as they have a meter on our line, we can transfer that credit to them," Gibson explained.

Lot of calls

When asked what the most someone could invest in the system, Gibson said they "have not explored that upper bounds." The goal isn't to have one person invest in the entire farm, but to make small increments of solar available to all customers.

"We've haven't had anyone come in and say 'I want to buy 100 of these,'" and if that happened, it would be taken to Allison for him to evaluate.

But they have fielded "a lot of calls" due to the publicity about the farm.

Web site monitors

There is plenty of information about the farm on DREMC's web site (www.dremc.com/SolarFarm.aspx) and people can see how the weather impacts power production each day.

With only a delay of 15 minutes, customers can get an idea of how much energy is generated when the skies are clear or when cloud cover rolls in. On Friday, with skies becoming a little cloudy, it was only cranking out 13 KW of its capacity of almost 26 KW.

In June, the farm produced 4,280 kilowatt hours, and as of Sept. 28, has generated 3,184 kilowatt hours for the month, Gibson said.

It's also interesting to monitor the energy production, Gibson said, explaining that most people equate the heat given off by the sun as meaning more generation, when actually cooler days with a bright sun and clear sky have higher production levels.

But as the days become cooler, they also draw to a close more quickly, and Gibson said it will give DREMC "a fair representation of what this system is going to produce."

Pilot program

The arrangement between DREMC and TVA is a first-of-its-kind pilot program developed between a local power company and the federal utility that qualifies for TVA's Generation Partners Program.

TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said the initiative "is a great way for Duck River ... to promote the Generation Partners pilot program and make more renewable energy available to consumers through an innovative business model."

According to TVA, its energy portfolio through August includes a total of 6,271 megawatts of operating or committed renewable capacity, which includes hydroelectric. Bradley said the 1,367 participants in the Generation Partners program presently stand at about 79 megawatts of renewable capacity.

Meets expectations

Gibson said that the system is "currently meeting our expectations," noting that solar panels were made in Tennessee and that the state is beginning to make an investment in this type of renewable energy.

Two solar farms opened in Tennessee in April, one in Memphis which can generate 1 megawatt of power, and the West Tennessee Solar Farm. about 45 miles northeast of Memphis ,which uses more than 21,000 panels to produce 5 megawatts of power,

Also a family can invest in more than one solar panel, with Gibson suggesting when tax refunds come in next year, perhaps it can go toward this type of investment, which would be much cheaper and easier than the cost involved with installing more of the panels on a home.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.