Tennessee solar farm project awaits federal approval

On September 8, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

Adjacent megasite in West Tennessee faces funding debate this week

By Chas Sisk, THE TENNESSEAN
September 8, 2009

The State Building Commission will meet Thursday to decide whether to spend $40 million to buy land for a 1,700-acre industrial park in West Tennessee, an area that would be a cornerstone of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s plan to transform Tennessee into a center of the solar energy industry.

But as of late last week, a related proposal — to build a 20-acre solar farm that would draw attention to the site — still had not been cleared by federal officials, nearly four months since it was announced.

Meanwhile, a small group of activists have questioned whether the state should lay out money for the Haywood County industrial site, which has never been reviewed for environmental compliance by a government agency. They fear the site could pollute the nearby Hatchie River, the only tributary of the Mississippi that still runs along its original banks.

Economic development officials at state and local levels say the concerns raised have been dealt with and that the project is crucial to the region’s and the state’s long-term prospects.

But they also are the latest issues in a long debate over the West Tennessee development, which has been dogged by economic and political questions since its inception in 2004.

At issue is an industrial site that sits in the district of House Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh and within a few miles of former Lt. Gov. John Wilder’s home. The site has been heavily promoted, but it has nevertheless struggled while similar industrial parks in Tennessee and neighboring states have thrived.

The location is one of eight so-called “megasites” identified by local economic development officials and certified by the Tennessee Valley Authority as being suitable for major industrial development.

Those megasites have been used to draw Toyota’s auto assembly plant to Tupelo, Miss., Volkswagen’s assembly plant to Chattanooga and Hemlock Semiconductor’s polysilicon crystal production facility to Clarksville.

But five years after the program began, three sites still have not been tapped for economic development, including the Haywood County plot. Earlier this year, state economic development officials convinced the legislature to let them intervene by setting up an authority that would have the power to use state money to buy land and build the infrastructure to develop out the megasite.

The vote this week could make or break the project. The $40 million grant, which would go to a new authority run by state and local economic development officials, is needed to execute options on land for the project site. Those options expire at the end of October.

But the grant has not been without controversy. Earlier this year, Republican leaders in the state Senate sought to remove funding for the grant from the state budget because the Bredesen administration had not shared enough information with them about the project.

They eventually relented before the final budget was passed. But Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris last week said the Bredesen administration still has not resolved their concerns about what will be involved with the project. Earlier this summer, he filed a Freedom of Information request to get more information.

“I’m concerned, for the sake of economic development and jobs in West Tennessee, that this project is being mishandled,” said Norris, who represents the Memphis suburb of Collierville. “It’s got to be done right. I can’t imagine it’s not being done right, but in the absence of any information, what else are we to think?”

Solar farm held up

One concern centers on the state’s plan to build a solar farm next to the megasite. Although technically a separate project, the solar farm is meant to call attention to the megasite itself, which Bredesen has been shopping to solar companies in the United States and abroad.

The array would be set up next to Interstate 40 and would include an education center. It also would use components produced in Tennessee and generate as much as five megawatts of electricity, making it one of the largest solar arrays in the Southeast.

The state intends to fund that project using about half of the $62.5 million allocation from Tennessee’s share of the federal stimulus package. The rest would pay for a solar energy research institute.

But the state’s application, which was filed in May, has been delayed by officials at the Department of Energy, who have questioned whether the money can legally be used for construction or to research unproven technologies.

Bredesen and other officials in his administration have said repeatedly that the problems would soon be resolved.

On Friday, Will Pinkston, a senior adviser to Bredesen who has been working on the application, said the federal government’s reservations have centered on the research institute, not the solar farm. He said officials at the energy department have indicated that the application will be approved within a few working days, possibly as early as this week.

“I can tell you that we’re quite close,” Pinkston said. “This project has taken longer than expected to get approved, but the reason it did is that it had a bigger vision that most states’ applications.”

Environmental concerns

A separate concern is the environmental and economic viability of the megasite. The site lies 5 miles southwest of the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge, and it is connected to the Hatchie River by a series of creeks that run near the site. But the only review of its environmental suitability was an analysis performed by a Memphis consultant hired by local economic development officials when they applied to have the area certified as a megasite.

“They absolutely have a program to go around the environmental rules,” said Gary Bullwinkel, a nearby resident who has organized opposition to the project. “They just talk about jobs.”

That fear is shared by the Tennessee Clean Water Network, a Knoxville nonprofit that tracks water-quality issues in the state.

State law requires any industry that builds on the megasite to get its plans for handling sewage or other industrial waste approved by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Unlike other megasites, the Haywood County location is far from a major city, which means waste-treatment infrastructure needed to clear environmental hurdles would have to be built from scratch, said Renée Hoyos, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“I’m all for solar and solar production, but I just don’t think this is the place to do it,” Hoyos said. “You’re losing farmland and increasing pollution. I’m not so sure that there is an economic gain for those communities.”

Low-polluting industries

The project nonetheless has wide support in the community, local officials said. The county has developed a plan by which waste from the megasite would be treated in Brownsville, the county seat, and piped to the Forked Deer River, not the Hatchie, said Franklin Smith, Haywood County’s mayor.

The county also is promoting the site for low-polluting industries, not heavy manufacturing, he said.
“We’re not talking about smokestack industries,” Smith said. “Our goal is to find good industries and jobs for West Tennessee.”
Until a plan is announced, there is no way to predict the impact, said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group. But Smith said he supports Bredesen’s strategy of promoting the site to solar companies.

“The probability of that leading to some sort of adverse environmental impact is much lower than just hanging a sign and saying, ‘We value just any kind of manufacturing in Tennessee,’ ” he said.

Hoyos, however, is not so certain. She said the state should put environmental protections in place first and then proceed with a development plan.

“It can’t be, ‘We want to do this. Can you bless it?’ ” she said. “They’re kind of going about this backward.”

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