Vis Solis’s Powerhouse Ten solar project was smack in the middle of the path of the Great American Eclipse in Cookeville, Tennessee. But power production wasn’t a concern for owner Carlos Mayer for a couple of reasons: One of which was the 1-MW project had halted construction.
When I got a chance to visit the project in August, half of the racks sat bare like roller coaster tracks on the hilly Tennessean landscape, the land left ungraded for financial reasons and to prevent run-off and erosion. The racks awaited solar panels that were supposed to be delivered in July.
“Well, I guess it has something to do with the 201 section,” Mayer said. “We purchased [panels] in the last week before this whole issue came up.”
When the 201 petition was filed and many contractors scrambled to order a surplus of panels, the Chinese panel manufacturer ran short of some of Vis Solis’s inventory. Then the next batch sent to Vis Solis was not enough panels for completion but brought it to halfway.
About 1,500 panels had been installed so far in late August, and the other 1,500 were expected to arrive by the end of August. In the end, Vis Solis received the final shipment in the beginning of September and completed the project by mid-month.
“I’m not happy about Suniva and SolarWorld, for sure,” Mayer said. “Nothing against their products, but filing the 201 petition drove the whole market crazy.”
Although it was only halfway completed, the project was already in operation in order to meet the Tennessee Valley Authority’s PPA deadline. By July 21, Vis Solis had to prove that at least 50 kWdc could feed into the grid. The company met the requirement just in time, but at a significantly higher cost than initially anticipated.
Another close call had to do with the utility’s side of the project. The recloser, or circuit breaker that can automatically close the breaker after a fault, showed up at the last minute without a control unit. Without a functional recloser, power can’t feed into the grid and satisfy the interconnection requirements from the local power provider Cookeville Electric Department and TVA. So Vis Solis got all the stakeholders together—TVA, Cookeville Electric Department and the city—and found a way to operate the recloser manually, as an interim solution to meet the deadline.
“We were lucky. Because otherwise, you know, we’d have been in trouble with TVA,” Mayer said. “You never know once you have a project under construction. You miss that IDD [initial date of delivery] date, you don’t have a power purchase agreement, and [you have] an idle investment.”
Powerhouse Ten sits in the Highlands Business Park on a 4.5-acre parcel of land that was otherwise unusable, between the Interstate and a water drainage ditch. The project was developed by partners Restoration Services and Vis Solis, and EPC work was done by Vis Solis with Brown Construction in a new joint venture partnership called Tennessee Valley Alternative Energy (TVAEnergy), which is not related to TVA.
The project is expected to produce approximately 1,400,000 kWh annually and uses Astroenergy’s 330-W panels mounted on a GameChange ground-mount system. The modules are connected to 20 Huawai string inverters.
When I visited, I could hear the cars whooshing by on the highway and see butterflies flying amongst the panels, pollinating the late-summer native plants that sprouted between them.
The rest of the business park was still under development, and I asked Mayer if he anticipated any other solar farms moving in to the neighborhood.
“Unfortunately not. TVA is very restrictive about this [solar] program,” Mayer said. “It’s just one out of maybe 40 to 50 projects of that size in the whole service territory.”
Mayer relocated from Southern Germany to Tennessee in 2010 and founded Vis Solis there. The company developed its first project in 2011—a 3-MW project in Fayetteville, Tennessee.
“It was really the first utility-scale project [in the area]. We became market leader overnight not even knowing at the time,” Mayer said.
It’s been an uphill struggle ever since to get around TVA’s increasingly restrictive solar policies. Vis Solis has found ways to bob and weave with the utility punches, but it has had to take up supplemental work to compensate for the tough solar market. The company co-develops solar projects and does consulting work outside TVA’s territory.
“It’s all right, but you can’t make a living really. Well, you can barely make a living. But you do other things,” Mayer said.
I asked if he had hope that the utility would become more solar-friendly, and Mayer laughed. “Never give up the hope, huh?”