Solar, Biofuels, EVs Boost Tennessee’s New Energy Profile
Public priorities and private investment have put Tennessee at the forefront of innovation in energy technology, from solar to advanced materials and biofuels to batteries.
The Volunteer State, with its Jobs4TN plan, has identified advanced manufacturing and energy technology - including solar, wind, biofuels and electric vehicles - as areas in which it has a clear competitive advantage.
Combined with high-profile assets such as the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory that not only conduct cutting-edge research but partner with companies to grow the value chain, Tennessee is creating jobs and building a robust new energy economy.
Solar Grants Shine
The Tennessee Solar Institute, a partnership of ORNL and the University of Tennessee, has awarded $12.5 million in Solar Innovation Grants to 35 companies in the sector’s value chain. The grants, made possible by federal stimulus money, help companies with everything from marketing to workforce training to process improvements and manufacturing upgrades.
Cara-Sol Energy in Knoxville, for example, received a $189,500 grant that allowed it to begin manufacturing solar thermal panels.
“Without TSI funds, they would not be able to do this,” says John Sanseverino, director of programs for the Solar Institute.
Other new companies using grants to set up manufacturing/fabrication operations include Soltility in Spring Hill, Outpost Solar in Pulaski and Midsouth Sustainable Energy Solutions in Memphis.
High in Fiber
Research in solar, battery technology and wind have long been part of the mission at ORNL, but advanced materials research and manufacturing is a growing component of the federal laboratory’s new energy program.
With a $35 million federal stimulus grant, ORNL will start producing lower-cost carbon fiber by the end of 2012. The implications for fuel savings are huge – reducing vehicle weight by just 10 percent boosts fuel efficiency by up to 8 percent.
“We have the potential to really revolutionize an entire industry because you can make super lightweight autos, strong windmill blades and reinforce bridges, but carbon fiber composites are very expensive,” says Tom Rogers, ORNL’s director of industrial and economic development partnerships.
With new feedstocks and conversion technologies, ORNL and industry partners have demonstrated they can lower the cost of carbon fiber by up to 50 percent. The new Carbon Fiber Technology Facility will show the potential at commercial scale, Rogers says.
Membership in the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium tripled in one year's time, to 40 members as of April 2012.
Energy Projects Heat Up
Major new energy projects are coming online. In Vonore, one of the first U.S. cellulosic ethanol demonstration plants also is the only facility dedicated to converting both agricultural residue and bioenergy crops to fuel ethanol.
In Smyrna, production at Nissan’s $1.4 billion plant to produce zero-emission vehicles and the lithium-ion battery packs that power them is set to begin later in 2012. The battery plant can produce 200,000 batteries each year; the adjacent auto plant plans to roll out 150,000 all-electric Leafs each year. The two plants will create about 1,300 jobs.
Hemlock Semiconductor Corp. is on track to open the first phase of its $1.2 billion polysilicon production plant in Clarksville in late 2012, with expected employment of 500. Near Cleveland, Tenn. to the east, Wacker Polysilicon, a division of German-based Wacker Chemie, broke ground on its $1.5 billion polysilicon factory in 2011. Production is expected to begin in early 2014 with 650 workers.
Big names are not the only players adding jobs. Diversified Power International in Piney Flats received more than $800,000 in TSI grants for multiple projects, including process improvements, workforce training and energy efficiency improvements to its facility, with significant reductions in energy consumption and related costs. With the savings, says the Tennessee Solar Institute's Sanseverino, the company is expanding operations. It added 14 workers in 2011.