Wampler's farm produces energy as well as pork products

From left, Ted Wampler Jr., president and COO, Ted Wampler Sr., founder, and
Martin Flanary, plant manager, look over a hillside on Highway 70 that is covered with solar panels

Vicky Newman-News-Herald

When Ted Wampler Sr. started Wampler's Wholesale Meats in 1953, he invested more than $1,000 in the business - money he had saved in his childhood by selling blackberries and fish bait.

Wampler's Farm Sausage Company on Highway 70, Lenoir City, today occupies the same land on which it originated, but it looks somewhat different. Son Ted Wampler Jr. has converted a sunny hillside once covered with wild blackberries and brambles into a "cutting edge" program to help carry the business forward for a new generation.

A ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Oct. 7 for the official unveiling of an array of solar energy collection panels. On Oct. 22, Wampler's also will host an "open house" event and provide tours to those in the community who want to see the $2.5 million solar setup.

The future is looking so bright that Wampler's is providing attendees with sunshades, imprinted with their new slogan, "Sausage, burgers and brats, made with the sun."

Energy generated by Wampler's also will be returned to the grid during peak energy usage times, helping to reduce the cost of energy for all in East Tennessee, said Ted Wampler Jr., president and chief operating officer.

The solar energy program was funded with help from a $250,000 TVA Generation Partners grant, a 10 percent grant with 90 percent local match, and a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America program loan. It is among the larger solar projects in the state to be undertaken by a private company.

"If you think about it, the electric company must build its infrastructure to meet peak demand times, in order to avoid brownouts or blackouts. Because of companies like us - Family Brands, Lock Medic and SECO Tools - putting our power to the grid and hitting at peak times, it holds down costs for everybody," Ted Jr. said.

Scott Brooks, TVA spokesperson, said TVA is under a federal mandate to reduce dependency on coal and fossil fuel energy production. Renewable energy measures such as solar energy are a part of TVA's Integrated Resource Plan, a blueprint to meet the energy needs of customers in the future. The IRP also includes about 30 percent nuclear energy, Brooks said.

"Meeting peak demand is one of the things that drives up the cost of electricity, especially during the warmer summer months and colder winter months," Brooks said. "When we have to generate more to go to meet demand during peak times, we have to go to more expensive natural gas generation, or we have to purchase energy from neighboring utilities."

The energy generated by Wampler's solar grid in the first 30 days was 78,000 kilowatts, or about $17-$18,000 worth of energy, to be returned to the power grid to offset peak production requirements, Ted Jr. said.

"You never could pick that many blackberries," Ted Sr. said, laughing. "These solar panels are right where the bushes were."

The energy production not only makes the company more profitable, it also makes East Tennessee more attractive to other companies, Ted Jr. said.  "A lot of Tennessee jobs are being secured here, and it's making us more competitive," he said. When the photovoltaic system was constructed, Wampler's used Tennessee products. "We bought 2,240 Sharp Solar panels," Ted Jr. said. Other Tennessee companies used in the project include AGC Flat Glass, Efficient Energy of Tennessee and Shoals Technology Group. Tennessee Group of United Community Bank was involved in financing the project.

Shannon Littleton, LCUB manager, said solar generation initiatives are growing in popularity. More than 20 solar projects, large and small, are returning energy to LCUB and ultimately to the TVA grid.
Littleton added that Ted Jr. has worked tirelessly to make the company sustainable. "A lot of things had to come together to make this work, but Ted Jr. took it and ran with it. He is one of those people who is a leader in industry," Littleton said.

At some point, Wampler's may be able to be 100 percent self-sustaining, energy-wise. At present, all the solar energy goes back to LCUB and the TVA grid, and Wampler's is credited for the amount. That's because some plant processes must be refined before the energy generated on-site can provide enough power for startup of the company's huge grinders, or processes that take the finished product to minus-10 degrees in only minutes, Ted Jr. said.

"We're (Wampler's) working with other local companies, and investigating possibilities for the future. Our business is on the cutting edge of clean energy. This is the wave of the future. We're taking solar, the latest, cleanest and greenest, and making the best products in the world, with the sun," Ted Jr. said.

The solar initiative is a milestone in the company's Corporate Social Responsibility plan, but it is only one component of the "green" initiative, Ted Jr. said. He gives the credit for the program to Martin Flanary, plant manager, who began investigating possibilities for solar power generation. The plan also includes a water conservation program, plant-wide recycling and green energy.

"The younger generation is very aware of the need to protect our planet," Ted Jr. said. "Our customers want us to conserve our planet's resources. It is important to them and it is important to us."