The Tennessee Valley Authority’s electrification of much of rural Tennessee marked an important chapter in the state’s energy history. Now Tennessee is celebrating another major milestone in electrification: the opening of the West Tennessee Solar Farm, the state’s largestsolar power array.

Consisting of 21,000 photovoltaic solar panels spread across more than 25 acres in Haywood County, the farm is capable of generating 5 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power 500 homes and offset 250 tons of coal each month. The University of Tennessee (UT) owns and operates the farm; Signal Energy designed and built it; and Chickasaw Electric Cooperative and Tennessee Valley Authority hold the power purchase agreements.

West Tennessee Solar Farm

image via University of Tennessee

In addition to generating juice, UT will be leveraging the West Tennessee Solar Farm to educate the public about solar power. Plans are in the works for a public information center at the site, which will function as a roadside attraction for some 10 million motorists who drive by on Interstate 40 every year, with easy-off, easy-on highways ramps included for access. The educational facility, scheduled for completion in late 2013, will feature an interactive renewable-energy exhibit.

tennessee solar farm

image via University of Tennessee

Part of what will be highlighted at this renewable energy exhibit, no doubt, will be information on Tennessee’s rapidly growing solar sector, which currently features 180 for-profit companies, employs more than 6,400 people in solar-related industries and has installed approximately 27 MW of solar power capacity throughout the state.

“The West Tennessee Solar Farm opens a new chapter in the history of American solar power, tying together economic development, public education, and future research capabilities that will cement Tennessee’s leading role in this fast-growing, high-tech sector,” said Dr. Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee, in a statement.

Information about the energy generated by the solar array will be available at the Solar Farm’swebsite.