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EPB started construction Friday on Chattanooga's first community solar project, which should start using the energy of the sun to power up to 200 homes by this summer.

The city-owned utility plans to erect 4,408 solar panels on a former salvage yard EPB has cleared near its distribution center at Oak Street and Greenwood Avenue. EPB will soon give its 170,000 electric customers the chance to buy into the solar project and reap the benefits from the renewable power it will generate.

EPB has yet to set prices for either its lease plan or energy credit option. But EPB President David Wade said he hopes to have the pricing plans available by this summer and is eager to make the utility's rates both competitive with other solar installations and adequate enough to help fund an expansion of the solar array in the future, if demand warrants.

The initial $1.8 million solar installation will generate about 1.35 megawatts of electricity and add to the 7,400 megawatts of renewable generating power that TVA already gets from its hydroelectric dams and from its purchases of wind- and solar-generated power. Combined with power from its three nuclear power plants, TVA now generates more than half of its electricity from non-carbon sources.

EPB wants to offer its customers the chance to buy into the solar project by purchasing an upfront 20-year lease that entitles them to a monthly bill credit for the value of what is generated each month from each panel or the option of making a monthly payment for the value of the solar output. Such a community solar plan gives solar power supporters the chance to buy into such generation even though their own property may be shaded or otherwise not suited for solar panel installation.

"Community solar is like joining a community pool rather than excavating your yard and installing a pool on your own property," Wade said. "The benefits are enjoyed by many more people, who don't have to worry about maintenance, liability and other hassles. Participating in Solar Share is a great option for people who live in apartments and other situations where solar panel installation is not feasible."

TVA will pay $1.1 million of the $1.8 million Solar Share project as part of a $2 million initiative TVA launched last year to support more community solar projects by local power companies. TVA is also supporting a similar community solar initiative by Appalachian Electric Cooperative in New Market, Tenn.

"Renewable energy is in the DNA of TVA," said Nancy Mitchell, general manager for distribution for Tennessee Valley Authority. "This is a great example of what can happen when partnerships come together for a common goal and a cleaner future."

TVAEnergy LLC – Tennessee Valley Alternative Energy is the business formed to build the new solar array in Chattanooga. EPB had previously considered a site in Bakewell for a solar farm, but Wade said the site near EPB's distribution center will give EPB easier access for study, maintenance and grid connections.

EPB is joining a record growth in solar power installations across the United States from both individual and business owners as well as utilities and independent power producers.

For the first time ever, U.S. solar ranked as the No. 1 source of new electric generating capacity additions on an annual basis in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association. Solar accounted for 39 percent of new capacity additions across all fuel types last year.

The solar association estimates nearly 209,000 Americans work in solar power installation, manufacturing or support industries, more than double the number in 2010. By 2021, that number is expected to increase to more than 360,000 workers.

In Charleston, Tenn., just 40 miles from EPB's new solar array, Wacker Chemical has invested $2.5 billion in a polysilicon manufacturing plant making a key element for solar panels.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said EPB's solar project could help Chattanooga's Innovation economy, which is drawing many businesses that want to use renewable energy and are exploring new technologies related to renewable energy. Berke applauded EPB for finding a new and better use for its 4-acre salvage yard near the Chattanooga Zoo by clearin the site for the thousands of elevated solar panels to be installed over the next several months.

"In addition to everything else EPB has done here in the Gig City and in our Innovation District downtown, they've done a great job a re-imagining this site to figure out how to make it more efficient for Chattanooga," Berke said during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new solar array.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said EPB's solar project "also is another way to inspire the students in our STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) programs.

"This solar array is something our young people will very much be interested in learning from and building on," Coppinger said.