Bredesen company brings renewable energy to small companies
Clearloop brings economic development to Jackson
Former governor Phil Bredesen, photographed in West Tennessee in 2018. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Following a groundbreaking ceremony held earlier in September, solar startup Clearloop is set to bring economic and workforce development to Jackson, TN. The new project, co-founded by former governor Phil Bredesen, offers companies the chance to invest in renewable energy and offset their carbon footprint. Because there’s no minimum investment, Clearloop gives smaller companies and individuals a way to participate in greening the electrical grid.
Clearloop broke ground in a community ceremony Sept. 2 in Jackson. CEO Laura Zapata says the project will power around 200 homes in the area for the next 40 years and will offset around 60 million pounds of carbon. Zapata says the company chose Jackson because of its central location between Nashville and Memphis, but also because part of Clearloop’s mission is to set up shop in places where solar projects will “go farther” and make more of an impact. Zapata, who grew up in Memphis, says cities like Nashville see lots of economic and financial investment. Clearloop, however, wanted to choose a location that benefited the community more.
“It was important to focus on not just how dirty is the grid and how sunny is the place, but how much does this mean for the community?” Zapata says. “[Jackson is a] combination of all those factors, and it happens to be very nice for us to be able to build in Tennessee as our first project.”
Clearloop’s funding comes primarily from the small businesses and individuals buying in. Zapata says a detergent company, for example, is measuring the carbon footprint of shipping and manufacturing, and investing in a solar company means they can offset that. Zapata says these companies purchase “carbon offset credits” to help accomplish the sustainability goals they’ve set for themselves, and that many companies had never heard of Jackson or even been to Tennessee before working with Clearloop. But investment isn’t just limited to companies; Zapata says one children’s book author wants to offset the carbon footprint of printing and shipping books and has purchased carbon offset credits through Clearloop.
Zapata says there’s no minimum to invest, making renewable energy more accessible to companies with smaller budgets. She also says consumers have powered a lot of the drive behind companies’ desire to become greener in the first place, and that during the pandemic and after, consumers have shown a strong desire to support and buy from corporations that are more sustainable. That’s created lots of business for Clearloop, and Zapata encourages individuals who are passionate about solar to schedule a meeting via their website.
“We can offset your carbon footprint by avoiding fossil fuels [fueling] electricity,” Zapata says. “We’re cleaning up the grid and preventing more carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere.”
Zapata and Bredesen are joined as co-founders in Clearloop by Bob Corney, who has an extensive career in communications and served as communications director in Bredesen’s gubernatorial administration. Bredesen serves as executive chair of Clearloop’s board and describes himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Bredesen says that during his time as governor he found solar to be less political and easier to gain support for compared to other climate change topics that could sometimes be polarizing in a red state.
Although he’d initially seen solar as a “boutique” industry that was fairly expensive, he came to realize there was more opportunity than he thought. Bredesen founded Silicon Ranch 10 years ago, a solar company with a solar project close to Clearloop’s in Jackson. Silicon Ranch works with larger customers like Facebook, but Bredesen wanted more than social media giants to have a way into solar.
“There’s a lot of companies who want to green things up,” Bredesen says. “Electricity is a very good way to do that. The idea of Clearloop [was] everybody could play, and not just big companies.”
Bredesen, like Zapata, says that there’s very little happening in the U.S. in terms of effective national policy around solar or green infrastructure. They say the private sector must fill gaps in national policy if we hope to slow down climate change and make a positive difference. Long term, Bredesen says that 40 years from now when the Clearloop project is done, it’s likely we’ll have newer, better kinds of solar panels we can replace them with. However, Zapata also says that after the 40-year term it’s possible the land could be returned to agricultural use and will be able to support cattle or sheep.
In the short term, Jackson is likely to receive an economic boost, says Kyle Spurgeon, president and CEO of Jackson’s Chamber of Commerce. Spurgeon says he first heard of Clearloop two years ago when the founders reached out. He says Jackson may be more desirable to companies looking for locations to build, because having fiber internet connectivity and a new solar project makes the city more competitive and attractive. Clearloop will also create new jobs during the construction period and become a taxpayer in the county.
Clearloop will not only work on Jackson’s economic development, but their workforce development; the company developed a relationship with TCAT, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. TCAT president Dr. Jeff Sisk says the college’s focus is preparing students for the future of their industries, and currently has an electrician’s apprenticeship program. However, with the introduction of Clearloop, the college has nearly reached the tipping point of offering a more niche solar photovoltaic technician program.
“Renewable energies are only gonna grow in the future and we just have to grow the workforce to go along,” Sisk says. “And that’s what we’re working on.”
Spurgeon says he knows the stereotypes about the South not welcoming climate change discussions, and Bredesen’s own Silicon Ranch entered “a U.S. solar market dominated by companies from Europe and the American West and Southwest” when it was founded in 2011, according to their website. Clearloop, though, may help change those stereotypes and present the Southeast and Tennessee as leaders in greener, renewable energy. Zapata says she’s proud that all three founders are Tennesseeans, and that the South should be a key player in solar.
“We deserve just as much access to clean energy as anybody else,” Zapata says.
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