Memphis Sharp plant will benefit as producer of panels

Posted on August 25, 2005

In the steamy days of August in Memphis, no one underestimates the power of the sun. Wednesday, it got more of its due as U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate energy subcommittee, described the new federal tax rebate he championed that knocks up to $2,000 off the costs of installing solar power in homes and businesses. The rebate goes into effect Jan. 6. "This will make solar energy competitive enough that it is likely to be used by a large number of people," he told a crowd of dignitaries, including Mayor Willie Herenton, in the already-blazing morning sun at Sharp Corp.'s American manufacturing plant at Mendenhall and Raines. "For the country, it should mean cleaner air and less reliance on foreign sources of energy," he said. "For the city, it means hundreds of jobs and an important new outlook for Sharp." Within weeks, Sharp's Memphis plant will be the No. 1 producer of photovoltaic panels -- which convert sunlight directly to energy -- outstripping competitors in California and Delaware. Sharp already employs 200 people in its solar division here and expects to add more as it ratchets production to match U.S. demand, growing 20 to 30 percent a year. It costs about $20,000 to install solar energy in the average U.S. home. Over five years, the rebate will provide $110 million in tax credits to "individual homeowners and businesses in Memphis and across the country," Alexander said, providing what he calls the "tipping point" for making solar energy affordable. The credit is available to people installing a few panels as well as those completely covering their roofs. "Sen. Alexander has been one of the most foremost champions of solar energy in Congress," said Noah Kaye, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington. As one of the most "influential legislators in energy in the country" his calls for progressive policies "carry special weight," he said. Sharp began producing solar panels here in 2003. In slightly more than a year it had doubled capacity to 40 megawatts. One megawatt equals 1 million watts. "I believe the tax credits," which apply to Sharp's plant, "will help make Memphis the new solar energy jobs capital of the United States," Alexander said. The new assembly line Sharp opens this month in Memphis will bring capacity to nearly 60 megawatts for a domestic market expected to be consuming 500 megawatts by 2010, according to Sharp USA chairman and chief executive Toshihiko Fujimoto. He calls the 107-acre campus a "shining example" of the Japanese company's commitment to the U.S. market. It's been 20 years since federal tax rebates, which dissolved during the Reagan administration, have been available for solar power. The emergence now, when gas prices are at near-historic highs, is expected to generate interest, said Becky Williamson, strategic marketing coordinator at Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division. Since April, the utility has enrolled in 270 customers in TVA's Green Power Switch, a program that lets Memphis sponsor TVA's investment in renewable energy in what she describes as "feel-good, non-tax deductible" contribution. Residential customers invest in $4 increments and the money is sent to TVA. "Collectively, these people are buying 2,100 blocks of green power (a block represents 150 kilowatt hours)," she said. "At the current level, we have a commitment for four megawatts of green power."