Memphis lights the way for solar power

Sharp Manufacturing invests heavily here

Posted on May 18, 2005

The city that's taking over as the nation's leading manufacturer for the solar-power industry is known more for fickle, malevolent weather than constant sunshine. It doesn't have many of the other ingredients that make solar energy popular, either, such as exorbitant utility rates inducing residents to invest in alternative fuels. Nor is there much overt passion for environmental causes. But quietly, if somewhat unexpectedly, Memphis is becoming a capital in the solar-power industry. The Sharp Manufacturing Corp. of America plant on Mendenhall already produces enough photovoltaic modules each year to generate 40 megawatts of solar power -- nearly a third of the nation's solar-manufacturing capacity. Within four months, Sharp will be adding another 20 megawatts, a 50 percent jump in production. "This will be the largest operating plant in the U.S.," said Ron Kenedi, general manager of Sharp Electronics Corp.'s solar systems division, in town this week for the upcoming introduction of a new solar roof tile. "It (will be) the solar-manufacturing capital of the U.S." Sharp's 26-year-old Memphis plant, which also makes microwave ovens, copier toner and assembles copy machines, already has 170 of its 800-plus workers involved in solar production. The expansion in August or September will create another 80-100 jobs, said T. C. Jones Jr., vice president of human resources and general affairs. The work typically pays about $13 an hour. With the new production line, the Memphis plant will substantially outstrip a Shell Solar manufacturing facility in California. However, Sharp is not the only manufacturer that's expanding. "They're all ramping up real quickly," said Noah Kaye, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association. "There's a lot of growth." Domestically, sales of solar-energy products rose 27 percent last year, while the global rate reached 45 percent. As solid as Sharp's growth has been, the future for the Memphis plant and solar energy in general looks even brighter, industry officials say. The photovoltaic panels made by Sharp use semiconducting material to convert sunlight directly to electricity. Solar energy, because of cost and other factors, accounts for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the power on the nation's electrical grid. That proportion isn't expected to grow much over the next several years, said Fred Mayes of the federal Energy Information Administration. However, there's a "huge demand" for solar power for off-grid applications, such as roof panels for homes and for modules powering flashing road signs, Mayes said. The industry stands to get an even further boost if legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is adopted by Congress. Designed to remedy soaring natural gas prices, the bill by the state's junior senator contains a provision that promotes solar power through a five-year, 30 percent investment tax credit for both residential and commercial applications of the technology. Kaye hails the Alexander bill as setting forth "some of the most progressive incentives proposed." The energy bill approved by the House last month didn't contain any of Alexander's solar provisions. But officials at Sharp haven't given up. "We're hoping that it will become part of the Senate's energy bill," Kenedi said. The expanded incentives could make solar power more attractive, and it could further educate the public. In many parts of the nation, "if people knew more about solar, they'd choose solar," he said. Sharp Corp., based in Osaka, Japan, is the world's leading producer of solar equipment. Most of its products go either to Germany or Japan. In the U.S., about 70 percent of the market is in California, where Kenedi is based. "We started this division basically from scratch" in December 2001, Kenedi said of the solar operations. The selection of Memphis as the company's U.S. manufacturing hub isn't difficult to understand, he said. The city's status as a distribution center, and its proximity to an emerging market on the East Coast, make it a good choice. "Even though we send a lot of product to California, it's going to be a national market, so a hub city like Memphis makes sense," Kenedi said. "We felt like the city was the best place to build up the market." Another factor in the decision was Sharp's solid relationship with Memphis. City leaders have shown "great appreciation" for the plant, Kenedi added. Still, the city could benefit by doing more to promote Sharp's solar operation, said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. He said Memphis could use the plant as the "cornerstone" of a recruitment strategy designed to attract clean, high-tech industries. "With Sharp and its rapidly growing solar facility, you've got a real ... foundation, and I think Memphis should build on it," Smith said.