Solar farm generates heat, lights, knowledge

Schneider Electric invests $6.25 million in Tennessee site to advance solar power research.


The sun was the guest of honor at the grand opening of Schneider Electric’s new solar farm at the company’s Smyrna, Tenn. manufacturing plant. It showed up early and stayed all day.

The bright sunshine over the hills of middle Tennessee on Monday greeted company and civic dignitaries from the region and state to officially open the six-acre solar farm, which will deliver a variety of energy benefits for the plant and the region while giving Schneider Electric a test lab for its solar inverter technology.

It also provides an important validation for the Smyrna workers, who have seen their operation expand over the past 30 years into an important global hub for medium-voltage switchgear. The installation of the solar farm is another important foothold for the workers in the community, and also provides energy that will be put back on the regional grid. The 2,500 solar panels at Smyrna are expected to generate 1.3 million kWh of electricity annually.

There are benefits for Schneider Electric as well. The $6.25 million project is eligible for a 30% tax credit from the federal government. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Generation Partners program pays a premium for solar power generated and sold back to the TVA. Perhaps its biggest advantage is that the Smyrna plant now becomes a test lab for solar inverter technology, which converts the 600V or 1,000 V dc power to ac current for use in the plant and on the grid. The testing of new solar inverter technology at Smyrna eliminates the need to find beta sites in partner companies to use as test sites.

From an operational standpoint, the solar farm generates 25% of the Smyrna plant’s energy, which reduces overall energy costs. “It has two big benefits,” said Ed Wilhite, facility manager at Smyrna. “The cash incentives and payback is one. We know the incentives we get from the TVA. It’s also a test lab for our own technology.”

Part of that testing will include visual panels throughout the plant that will show how much energy the solar farm is generating. “Working from an operational and Lean perspective, you can easily see how it fits,” said plant manager Michael DiNapoli. “You can see what is in front of you. It’s a visual piece of information for our operators. You want to put the information in front of the people who can help make a difference.”

The solar farm is far from the first energy management effort at Smyrna. In fact, one reason to site the plant at Smyrna is the plant’s exceptional record over the last seven years in energy management. “We’ve done a lot here to reduce energy usage,” Wilhite said. “We’ve reduced our energy usage 28% since 2004. A lot of that is external to the building. This is the first time the public will be able to drive by and see what the company is doing with electricity. They can see it as a practical application.”

That is part of Schneider Electric’s evolving philosophy as a global energy management company. “We’ve got to know how to deliver renewable power to customers,” said Jeff Drees, North American president of Schneider Electric, at Monday’s ceremony. “In the last five years, we as a company have saved $18 million and cut our energy expenses 20%. If you’re going to talk about renewable energy, you ought to east your own food.”

Also read about a prior 60.5 kW solar installation at the Schneider Electric Palatine, IL, headquarters, with photos and diagrams and solar project implementation tips.

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