The ambitious Phipps Bend nuclear power plant in Hawkins County, Tennessee, sat unfinished and largely unused since construction halted in 1981 (check out photos of the abandoned plant here, and a drone’s eye view of it here). The project was supposed to revitalize the area and energize the entire area of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), but due to economic factors—falling energy demand and increased costs of nuclear plants, according to the Kingsport Times-News—the TVA laid off workers and halted construction.
According to the Washington Post, “Most of the 18 nuclear projects pending before the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission a decade ago have been aborted or suspended indefinitely.” Abandoned nuclear projects continue to dominate news headlines as natural gas prices keep falling.
The Phipps Bend site was used only for safety training exercises until BirdsEye Renewable Energy of Charlotte, North Carolina, saw the potential of the space for a new kind of energy generation.
BirdsEye president Brian Bednar got to know Holston Electric Cooperative, the local electric utility in Hawkins County, when BirdsEye developed solar arrays on 20 schools in the county through the TVA Generation Partners Program.
“Knowing the area, we came across this industrial park adjacent to the uncompleted Phipps Bend nuclear power plant,” Bednar said. He thought, “Let’s find a way to combine old with new.”
Bednar worked with the Phipps Bend Joint Venture, a partnership between the Industrial Development Board of Hawkins County and Industrial Development Board of the City of Kingsport, manager of the land adjacent to the shuttered nuclear plant, to begin building the Phipps Bend solar farm.
BirdsEye contracted United Renewable Energy (URE) of Alpharetta, Georgia, to be the EPC for the project. It used Hanwha Q CELL modules, NEXTracker tracking systems, an Also Energy monitoring system with video feed and Huawai inverters.
Bednar knew from the start that this was an unprecedented solar project and was excited about the prospect.
“There was a lot of good electrical infrastructure for interconnection,” Bednar said. “It just seemed like a good way to add value to some land that just didn’t have value.”
The site wasn’t ideal for commercial development, “so it seemed like a really nice fit to take something that was in not good use, and put it into better use,” Bednar said.
Because the nuclear power plant was never in operation, the site was still considered a greenfield, not a brownfield. So besides the unique positioning, the rest of the project was pretty typical.
“Nothing in that project was particularly challenging because of the fact that it was a former nuclear plant,” Bednar said. “Most of it was just our traditional development process.”
Bednar sees multiple beneficiaries from this new plant, including the TVA, because the project increases the penetration of renewable energy in its service territory and applies to its Solar Solution Initiative (SSI); and the landlord, the Phipps Bend Joint Venture.
“So they’re earning rent on this site which was otherwise simply a maintenance headache,” Bednar said. “They had to mow it, but with no revenue.”
The residents of Hawkins County also benefitted from the project because United Renewable Energy made a point to hire local workers.
“One of the things we always try and do in conjunction with our partners is identify opportunities to utilize local labor to maximize the economic benefit of a project to the local community,” said Keith Herbs, executive vice president of URE. URE used several local subcontractors to help with construction of the project.
“For any project we’re working on, we want to be good partners to a community,” Herbs said. Having BirdsEye’s knowledge of the area made that even easier.
Another aspect of the project meant to help keep the site attractive to humans and animals alike was the use of Deerbuster fencing instead of barbed wire. The team installed the fence upside down, hoping the large holes would allow smaller mammals and reptiles to pass through the site uninterrupted, but keep out deer that may chew wires.
The use of Deerbuster fencing was a pilot project for BirdsEye. If it works to keep out the wire-chewers but allow other animals to get through easily, the company may use it for future projects. Bednar’s not concerned at this point about smaller mammals like rabbits chewing the wires.
“I’m more worried about red-tailed hawks sitting on the panels, waiting for the bunny to pass through the fence,” Bednarlaughs. “That might be a little bit of a more gory outcome.”
The new solar plant will bring some economic opportunities to a community burned by a failed energy project in the past. The enthusiasm was palpable to Bednar at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new solar project. He said local leaders showed up, and this semi-rural community was supportive of the project because they are always “looking for ways to feel like they’re on the edge of innovation.”