Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sun Seekers: First of 4,160 Solar Panels Installed Near Agricenter International in Memphis

Agricenter International on Monday began installing a new kind of crop -- energy-producing solar panels -- to complement its fields of corn, cotton and soybeans.
Mike Bragg, with Evergreen Solar Services, welds tubes to support solar
panels being installed on Monday at Agricenter International.

The first of 4,160 photovoltaic solar panels were to be mounted within view of thousands of motorists driving through Shelby Farms daily on Walnut Grove.

Agricenter officials made the short drive out to the site to see the progress and mark the occasion.

"C'mon sun, make me sweat," Agricenter board chairman William 'Bill' Gillon joked. The temperature was in the mid-50s.

The solar field will be commissioned with a ceremony on April 11, Agricenter president John Charles Wilson said. Also watching were past president Joe McKinnon, who helped initiate the project, and Ken Plunk, chairman of Shelby County's Agricenter Commission.

All the 69-by-40-inch panels should be installed on rows of 4-foot-high tubes by the third week of February, said Brian Lechliter, project manager for the construction company, Lightwave Solar.

The 5.5-acre solar array will produce enough electricity to power 400-500 homes at peak demand periods, he said.

In some ways, the hillside solar array resembles a crop. The panels are arranged in straight rows, 16 feet apart.

The metal grid is sturdily anchored. Seventeen-foot-long metal polls are buried 13-feet deep, so the panels sit four feet high.

But the panels -- made in Memphis by Sharp Manufacturing -- actually are attached to beams called "torque tubes." The tubes run atop the rows of poles.

The powered torque tube will rotate slowly during the day so that the panels always face the sun. The movement -- aided by GPS to follow the sun -- should help the system produce 20-40 percent more power than if the panels were stationary.

The tough solar panels are able to withstand golf-ball size hail and 100-mph winds, Lechliter said, adding, "I haven't had to replace one yet."

To help endure strong winds, the panels turn flat whenever the wind reaches 50 mph.

Nashville-based Silicon Ranch, founded by former governor Phil Bredesen, is financing, will own and will benefit from electricity sold from the solar array the first 10 years.

After that, the Agricenter will have the option to buy the system if it chooses.

But meanwhile the Agricenter will use the solar array as an educational tool for green energy.

Agricenter will accommodate visitors who want to see the solar array, offer electronic displays in the Agricenter lobby showing the power produced, and provide web cam images of the solar field.


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