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Smartflower solar panels

Flower Power

Chickamauga Solar Project Highlights Innovation, On-Site Generation      

Chris Azar and Tyler Marlow wanted to display some flowers. 

Not a bouquet of flowers. Not a garden of flowers. Not even real flowers.     

Sixteen-foot-diameter, solar-power-generating flowers.  

Five of them.  

The Tennessee Valley Authority energy efficiency experts considered placing one flower in each of five different spots, but the installation would have been impractical.  

They needed a big stage to showcase carbon-free power.   

Something large, open and highly visible.  

As luck would have it, TVA manages hundreds of bridges in seven states. Some are just footbridges over creeks and ravines, but the bigger ones carry traffic over hydroelectric dams.     

The largest of all? Thrasher Bridge over Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where almost 70,000 vehicles cross each day on state Route 153.     

What better place for the giant solar flowers, they reasoned, than the grounds of the Chickamauga Power Services Center, a complex of buildings just southwest of Thrasher Bridge?    

“You see them as soon as you cross the dam,” Marlow said. “It's a super-heavily trafficked area.”   

The solar flower project is helping TVA develop plans for on-site solar generation at other facilities. 

“The thought process was to demonstrate our commitment to sustainability and innovation,” Rozh Ameen, TVA’s manager of architecture and engineering, said. “And it’s just pretty.”    

Tracking the Sun

The high-profile site choice is having the desired effect.     

“I’ve had my friends ask me about it,” Ameen said. “People love it. They drive by. They know I work for TVA, so they bring it up.”   

Not everyone initially knows what the flowers are, he said, because most people think of solar panels as flat rectangles.    

Each of these five Smartflowers, as they are officially known, is a circular array of 12 petals that rotate to follow the sun.     

“They actually track the sun as it's moving through the sky, just like a flower,” Marlow said. 

The petals retract at night. In high winds, they fold up to prevent damage. 

The flowers’ ventilation keeps them cooler – and therefore more efficient – than rooftop solar installations. They also have dual-axis tracking, which allows them to maintain a 90-degree angle to the sun all day long. This makes them more efficient than stationary panels and those that rotate on a single axis.     

The Smartflowers are among several innovative solar technologies installed at TVA facilities throughout the Valley region. 

This includes solar-powered EV chargers at three of TVA’s four visitor centers – the fourth is being outfitted this year – and a solar array at Melton Hill Campground, a TVA demonstration site for sustainable recreation, clean power and renewable technology. 

On-Site Solar  

The Smartflowers at Chickamauga Power Services Center are wired to the nearby TVA central labs complex, which houses energy-intensive testing equipment. They help reduce the amount of power those buildings draw from the grid. 

“The overall strategy of TVA is to adopt more renewables,” Azar, a senior program manager with TVA EnergyRight, said. “We’re making a change.” 

Azar recently handed the reins of the solar flower project to program manager Marlow with the Internal Energy Management Program, which is responsible for making TVA’s own facilities as efficient as possible. 

On-site solar generation is one of the next frontiers, Marlow said.

“We’ve already changed all the bulbs to LED," Marlow said. “We’ve already put in efficient HVAC. There's not a lot else you can do except for add on-site generation, especially at our corporate sites.” 

And the Smartflowers serve as something of a test bed for TVA. 

“We will likely be doing on-site solar at a lot of sites in the future,” Marlow said. 

‘Perfect Opportunity’      

Lisa McKinney is director of TVA facilities management, the team that oversees, inspects and maintains many of TVA’s bridges, including Thrasher. 

When first approached about the unusual project, McKinney asked some hard questions about its viability. Now she’s a big fan.

“It was the perfect opportunity, the perfect location,” she said. “And they look beautiful out there. It’s definitely something TVA can be very proud of. It highlights our commitment to not only the environment, but green power.” 

Azar echoed that sentiment. 

Making carbon-free energy visible leaves an impression on everyone, even his children, ages 9 and 5. 

“It was kind of nice just to be able to point it out to my family and my kids and say, ‘Hey, I had a part in making that happen,’” he said.

From planning to implementation, the project pulled in approximately 25 TVA employees from seven different departments – a bigger collaboration than initially envisioned.

Outside construction contractors’ bids came in over budget, so TVA’s civil construction projects and field support team stepped in to handle the excavation, conduit installation and concrete work.

“My biggest takeaway is what TVA has as far as knowledge and capability in the different groups,” said Justin Hays, manager of the construction projects group. “It highlights what we can do in TVA if our groups come together and work together.”

Others also praised the coordinated effort. 

“It’s been a lot of folks and they work really well together,” Ameen said, adding that the novelty and beauty of the flowers made the project compelling.

“They're like contemporary art,” he said. “And who doesn't like flowers?” 

Photo Gallery

TVA energy efficiency experts Tyler Marlow and Chris Azar visit the Smartflowers

TVA energy efficiency experts Tyler Marlow and Chris Azar visit the Smartflowers near Chickamauga Dam.

Smartflower solar panels

Good ventilation keeps the Smartflower solar panels cool and boosts their efficiency.

solar flowers near Chickamauga dam

The solar flowers provide electricity for TVA’s Chickamauga Power Services Center in Chattanooga.

TVA employees collaborated on the solar flower project

A team of employees from seven TVA departments collaborated on the solar flower project.

A close-up view of a smart flower

Each Smartflower has 12 petals that rotate to track the sun’s movement.

Three smartflower solar panels

Each day, about 70,000 vehicles pass by the Smartflower solar installation. 

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Learn about the role of solar and other renewable energy resources at the TVA Renewables page.   

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