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Visiting Knoxville's Solar Tour & Fair

Last Saturday, the city of Knoxville presented a solar power fair in Krutch Park and at the East Tennessee History Center. Held in conjunction with the American Solar Energy Society's National Solar Tour, it presented a snapshot of solar-power possibilities and its current applications in local businesses and homes. MP columnist and Hellbender Press editor Rikki Hall checked it out, and filed this report for us:

The sun smiled upon downtown Knoxville Saturday through a perfect blue sky. The crisp autumn air had recharged spirits from the previous weekend's soggy gloom, and downtown was bristling with activity. Just as the harvest on display at the farmer's market testified to the sun's life-giving power, visitors to the Krutch Park extension got a glimpse of our solar-powered future.

A dozen companies had set up tents and displays to take part in the national Solar Tour. Most were builders and installers ready to assess a home's energy efficiency and incorporate solar water heaters and photovoltaic arrays into its design, but there was also a rocket-like electric vehicle on display and a solar-powered lawn mower which the owner hopes to share co-op style with members who want quiet, petroleum-free lawn care.

Ironically, the mower is a refurbished Elec-Trak model built in 1970 by General Electric and discontinued after sales were tepid. 

(CaptionGil Hough of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy dons a costume as part of the Solar Tour festivities that included information booths, demonstrations and a tour of local solar homes.)

Read more & see additional pics on the jump!

One company pitching its services on Saturday was founded in the 1970s but was mothballed as memories of that decade's oil crisis faded. With Obama's emphasis on developing a solar-energy economy, the owner has revived the company with an improved distribution network to lower delivery costs. Despite steady improvements in technology, solar power has not yet achieved the popularity needed for economies of scale to bring down prices, but most in the industry see that happening as soon as the housing market recovers from the derivatives crash.

(CaptionRetroMow is a newly chartered cooperative that plans to share solar-charged tractors, delivered by biodiesel-fueled vehicles, among members who can use them to till gardens and mow lawns.)

Residential solar remains a long-term investment, paying off in 10 to 15 years in most cases, even with the 30 percent tax credit, but additional incentives for small businesses push the savings into the near term. Three East Tennessee businesses: Wampler's Sausage in Lenoir City, Hometown Medical in Madisonville and Apalachee Nursery in Turtletown, were awarded USDA Rural Energy for America Program grants last week, and their PV arrays should pay for themselves after just a few years of shrunken energy bills. Harvey Abouelata of Sustainable Future, LLC says Ted Wampler told him, "You're selling money." To reach the point where clients see it that way, the company had to master grant writing, tax forms and all the engineering challenges inherent in merging on-site generation with utility-grid power.

(CaptionShadows, even small ones, stop the flow of electrons across a photovoltaic panel, so children could watch water in the fountain slow down as they blocked the sun.)

While turning sunlight into electricity is complicated, solar water heating is not. It is a primitive technology used in parts of the world that have never had electricity. Any plumber has the skills to supplement or replace an electric water heater with a solar system. I asked several solar experts why more homes do not heat water with sunlight, and the answers had more to do with culture than economics. We like to shower first thing in the morning, after heated water has had all night to cool, and America's expansionist adolescence made a virtue of gluttony that we are only now growing out of.

(CaptionExhibitors included Pellissippi State TCC, which has created a vocational curriculum for students wanting to work in the field of solar energy.)

With families pushing strollers among tables piled with squashes, peppers, baked goods and crafts, the virtues of clean, decentralized power seem as clear as the October sky.

(CaptionA device called the Solar Pathfinder, manufactured in Tennessee, uses an astronomical grid and a fish-eye lens to measure, in a single reading, how much sun shines on a spot throughout the year.)

Comments » 1

  • October 06, 2009
  • 6:42 PM
Rich Hessler Solar writes:

It's hard to push solar energy in Tennessee right now with the low electricity rates. It's going to take a lot of homeowners wanting to go green or the carbon tax to make solar compete with electricity rates. But great job for getting the idea out there! Hopefully some homeowners learned about the advantage of solar for the environment.

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