published Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Volkswagen solar park heats up Chattanooga's green image

Volkswagen and city officials flipped on the switch to the new solar park Wednesday morning.
Volkswagen and city officials flipped on the switch to the new solar park Wednesday morning.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • photo
    John Voelcker, editor of HighGear Media, gets a closer look at the solar panels Wednesday after officials flipped on the switch to Volkswagen's new solar park.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

Volkswagen SOLAR ARRAY

• 9.5 megawatt system

• 33,600 solar panels

• Cost $25 million to build

• Fixed-angle array system with 25 percent tilt

• Occupies 33 acres on a 66-acre tract next to VW factory

• Supplies up to 12.5 percent of VW's power needs

Source: Volkswagen, Silicon Ranch

Volkswagen's new 33-acre solar park, the largest at any U.S. auto plant and the biggest array in Tennessee, adds another stamp to Chattanooga's green card, officials said Wednesday.

"It tells people there is an old industrial city that has gone from smokestacks to next-generation industrial technology," said Mayor Ron Littlefield as the $25 million solar farm was officially switched on.

Frank Fischer, chief executive of VW's operations in Chattanooga, said officials had looked at using methane from the city's landfill as an alternative energy source.

He said the automaker eyed wind power, pointing to a sister plant in Emden, Germany, which uses electricity from nearby turbines.

However, the company settled on solar because it made more sense from business, reliability and other standpoints, Fischer said. It helped the factory to achieve its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum status. The Chattanooga auto plant is the only one worldwide to hold the Platinum badge.

Wolfram Thomas, Volkswagen AG's senior vice president for environment, energy and new business areas, noted the Chattanooga factory is a benchmark and role model.

"All our plants are to be environmentally optimized," he said.

Silicon Ranch, a Nashville company led by former state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber, owns the solar park and will sell the electricity to VW under a 20-year agreement.

"Who could have dreamed a generation ago that the day would come when a major auto manufacturing facility right here in Tennessee would rely on the sun to help power up their production lines," Kisber said.

The electricity produced by the 9.5 megawatt system will go directly to the VW plant. It will meet 12.5 percent of VW's energy needs during full production and all of it in non-production periods, said Fischer about the plant that makes the Passat sedan and employs about 3,200 workers.

Ron Harr, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's CEO, said the solar park helps bolster the city as an environmentally friendly place. The array is one more reason for private companies to look at Chattanooga, he said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said VW's solar park not only "makes good common sense but business sense."

"It's a strong commitment Volkswagen has made," citing the automaker's efforts to drive down emissions from energy supplies.

Phoenix Solar AG chief Andreas Haenel, whose company oversaw engineering and construction of the solar park, said the market for sun power continues to grow. He said VW's facility is as big as the entire world market in the 1980s.

"I strongly believe the U.S. market will grow and become one of the top three worldwide," he said.

Konrad Bachhuber, who is heading up the construction of Wacker's Bradley County, Tenn., polysilicon production plant, said the VW solar array is an example of what can happen in the U.S.

"Tennessee has good conditions" for solar, he said. Wacker's $1.5 billion plant that will make a key ingredient for solar panels and is slated to start production in 2015.

Kisber said his company has begun work on a 30 megawatt project with Georgia Power Co. near Social Circle, Ga. He said the company, which includes former Gov. Phil Bredesen and ex-state Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr, has done nine projects so far.

A 5 megawatt facility in West Tennessee had been the state's largest solar farm, according to officials.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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