Source: Knoxville News Sentinel | Shelley Kimel | May 4, 2015

It seems everyone has an opinion on how Tennessee’s energy sector should shape up in the coming decades.

The state has made a big investment in solar over the past decade and proponents hope to develop that niche even further by drawing on research and technology resources at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Tennessee(UT). Other projects, however, like investments in biofuels and small nuclear reactors have struggled to get off the ground.

What the state needs is a unified energy plan that balances the needs of its many stakeholders — from homeowners to potential new businesses — while allowing the state to respond to rapid changes in the energy industry, according to a report from UT’s Baker Center.

New moves needn’t be extravagant; researchers assert there’s still some low-hanging fruit to be addressed that would make a difference.

Among the report’s findings:

– Tennessee households have relatively high energy costs because of the inefficiency of housing and wide temperature fluctuations over the course of a year. Promoting energy efficiency and conservation could free up Tennessee residents’ purchasing power and improve their quality of life. Suggestions include subsidizing energy efficient heating and cooling systems and expanding the state’s sales tax holiday to include weatherization and energy efficient products.

– Targeted economic development programs focusing on the state’s energy sector could allow the state to create a new industry niche. Several factors make Tennessee prime for this, including the state’s central location, attractive tax and business climate, skilled manufacturing workforce, existing initiatives in biomass and solar power, and energy expertise at ORNL and UT.

– Efforts to develop solar and biomass resources for electricity generation and motor fuel mean Tennessee is poised for private capital investment, job creation and the production of underlying technologies.

– Tennessee is a top 10 producer of light vehicles and is home to major automobile manufacturers, including Nissan, General Motors and Volkswagen. They and hundreds of suppliers have invested billions of dollars in production capacity in the state. New technologies for biomass conversion, power generation from hydrogen and storage batteries could have significant effects on the state’s large and growing transportation equipment sector

– The maturation of the biomass industry in the state could provide an economic boost to Tennessee’s farmers and provide a more diverse mix of agricultural commodities.

– The state’s manufacturing base, with clusters and supply chains around transportation equipment, machinery, electrical equipment and appliances, and computers and electronics sectors could help serve as a springboard to growth. These sectors together accounted for about 109,400 jobs in Tennessee in 2013, or just over one-third of manufacturing employment in the state.

The researchers emphasize that stakeholders must be engaged in developing a state energy plan and the plan must be driven by well-defined goals. The plan should take into account sustainability, economic development and competitiveness, renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency, system resiliency and security, and price stability and affordability.

Easier said than done, but the payoff could be more jobs, investment and economic development that would cement the state as a leader in a new industry niche.

“If properly positioned, Tennessee may be able to take advantage of changes that are taking place and secure economic development gains and other benefits like environmental improvement for the state’s residents and businesses.” wrote lead author Matt Murray, director of the Baker Center.