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Work under way on new solar farm near Agricenter in Memphis

The Commercial Appeal January 11, 2012

By Tom Bailey Jr.

Construction has started on the 4,160-panel solar array at Agricenter International. Heavy equipment has been moving dirt and building a berm to at least partially shield the view of the solar farm from motorists passing by the site. It is located on the south side of Walnut Grove Road, just west of Ducks Unlimited headquarters.

"They're moving along pretty fast on it," Agricenter president John Charles Wilson said Wednesday.

The panels will generate a megawatt of power, enough to provide electricity to about 200 homes.

Silicon Ranch, the company owned by former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, is financing construction of the $4.3 million facility and will own it. Silicon Ranch will sell the power to Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, and receive a TVA subsidy paying 12 cents above market rate for each kilowatt hour produced. After 10 years, Agricenter will have the option to purchase the solar array at fair market value, Wilson said.

"It gives us 10 years to look at what it's doing," Wilson said. "If it's making money like it's planned to do, it'll be an easy decision to make."

Meanwhile, Agricenter will feature the solar array as an another educational component of its grounds. It will accommodate visitors with access to the edge of the solar farm, signs explaining the project, electronic displays in Agricenter's lobby showing the amount of power generated, and even webcam images of the solar field.

But a green fence will surround the array to keep deer and people from touching the panels.

Some consideration has been given by both the Agricenter and Shelby Farms Park Conservancy to how exposed the solar panels should be to motorists driving through the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms on Walnut Grove. The esthetics of solar arrays create some ironic complications. One the one hand, solar panels are emblematic of the green movement, of helping create a sustainable world by reducing carbon emissions. On the other hand, the four-foot-high panels would stick out in, or adjacent to, a park, another disturbance to Shelby Farms' landscape.

When some park users started asking what the array would look like from Walnut Grove, Wilson said he decided to build a berm.

The Land Trust of Tennessee has already determined that the solar array is an appropriate development for the Shelby Farms, said Laura Adams, executive director of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

"But we did think it would be appropriate if it were shielded a bit from view on Walnut Grove Road," she said.

The conservancy controls 3,200 acres both north and south of Walnut Grove, and the Agricenter has 1,000 acres on the south side. The Shelby Farms Park Conservancy is dealing with a similar issue in its plans to build an electric car charging station. The charging station will be built with certain finishes and other touches that will make it less jarring in a park, said Jen Andrews, the conservancy's communication director.

The solar array will be the state's first to have a solar tracking system. The panels will slowly move to keep facing the sun during the day. The tracking will substantially increase the system's efficiency, Wilson said.

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