TVA’s timid “support” for solar stifles growth in The Valley

 

My first solar co-worker was even more political than I am. A native Tennessean who grew up in Georgia and came back to Tennessee for his adult life, he had no reservations about running down the state he really loves deep down.

“We’re always at the bottom of the lists,” he’d say, “always bringing up the rear.”

You know the kind of lists: college graduation rates, education spending per capita, infant mortality – and rooftop solar, too.

“Thank God for Mississippi and Alabama,” he’d joke in all seriousness. “Without them we’d be dead last.”

His lament came to mind last Friday when Georgia Power started its new Advanced Solar Initiative. Compared to what’s happening in the Tennessee Valley, “advanced” is the right word.

What’s the right word to characterize TVA’s support for solar?

The GPASI aims to add 210 megawatts of solar in the next three years. In each of the next two years, they’ll accept a total of up to 45 MW of small solar projects (up to 100 kilowatts) and medium-size solar projects (100 kW to 1MW).

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the Green Power Providers (GPP) program in Tennessee and parts of six other states for small renewable energy projects (up to 50 kW), has a cap of 7.5 megawatts for 2013. Its Renewable Standard Offer-Solar Solutions Initiative (RSO-SSI) for projects up to 1MW has a cap of 10 MW.

“Timid” comes to mind. Or “stifling,” which is the effect of TVA’s timid solar policy.

To be fair – fairer than TVA is willing to be, in Sundog’s humble rooftop opinion – the RSO cap is actually 100 MW. But the price they’re offering is $0.04/kWh, which is not something any solar investor is going to plunk down millions of dollars to get (so “miserly”?). The RSO-SSI component – their bone thrown to The Valley’s solar industry – adds another $0.08/kWh if the project developer uses a local installer.

So for all practical purposes, TVA will allow a maximum of 17.5 MW of solar to be built this year in Tennessee and parts of six other states (so “meager”?). Our Georgia neighbors (at least those in the smaller Georgia Power service area) will be looking at 45 MW.  And that fairly glaring difference will be magnified in the next few years as the Tennessee Valley falls farther behind its neighbor.

Golly, even tiny, cloudy Massachusetts installed 150 MW of solar last year alone and will hit its current cap of 400 soon. Tinier Maryland is aiming for 1.5 gigawatts of solar, as in BILLIONwatts, and New Jersey has a 4 GW program (though, yeah, I know, we don’t like being compared to those Yankee liberals).

So how about “meager,” “miserly,” or “begrudging” – all words used to define the word I’d really like to use but have been advised by more temperate heads not to out of political correctness sensitivity, even though my word is merely an innocent homonym of the verboten one.

This is an historic occasion. I don’t mean for the states and utilities involved, though that’s true, too. I mean for us Sundoggers. This is the first time we have ever uttered a critical word about TVA other than directly to TVA’s face.

When people ask me about solar in The Valley, I have long touted TVA’s support for solar. Its production-based GPP incentive (currently $0.09/kWh above retail rates) is a great thing for homeowners and small business owners wanting to install solar as a long-term investment. It’s a great way to make solar cheaper in these early days of being a little too expensive to match dirty coal, hurtful hydro and dangerous nuclear.

When I read about feed-in-tariffs as the sliced bread of solar energy markets, I always wonder why TVA’s program is never mentioned. The 10-year pilot program that led to the Green Power Providers launch last fall was one of the boosts that got solar going in The Valley, and about the only one left. Meanwhile, for instance, the only solar conversation in the Tennessee Legislature is how to make solar more expensive by boosting its property tax valuation.

Of course, TVA’s first act upon turning its long-running pilot into a permanent program was to cut its premium payment by $0.03, or 25 percent. The unofficial plan is to cut it another 3 cents next year, or 33%, and another 3 cents the following year, or 50%, and finally by 2016 it will cut its last 3 cents to nothing – a 100% elimination of any incentive to go solar, just as the 30% federal income tax credit for solar investment also expires.

That’s what I’d call TVA’s “backward” support of solar, a retreat, really. They took an early leadership role with their pilot renewable energy program a decade ago and apparently decided solar was worth nothing more than window dressing and photo opportunities while they went on with their true business of trying to build more nuclear power plants instead.

That’s not, as we like to say at Sundog Solar, “Barking up the right tree.”

TVA’s tight, tiny caps are keeping the lid on solar in The Valley. Instead of leading its ratepayers into the future of clean energy, it assumes solar is a problem. Instead of recognizing the added value of solar energy — that its peak production comes at peak demand times, and that its distributed generation contributes to lower line losses — it considers its premium payment for solar a mere subsidy.

Notice they’re not paying for nuclear with their Green Power Switch program, which asks ratepayers to voluntarily tax themselves above usual kWh rates to donate cash so TVA can buy clean energy. 

Here’s meager and miserly: Get homeowners to pay the capital cost of building generating capacity and then take their renewable energy credits – not just for the 10 years of premium payments for the solar but for another 10 years after that, when according to TVA a solar kWh has no value beyond a dirty coal or dangerous nuclear kWh – and adding insult to injury by stating in their contract that the person who paid for the solar installation also has to give up their right to brag about it, which TVA also acquires.

Georgia Power, on the other hand, lets the solar owner retain the renewable energy credits they’ve earned. That is helpful, not meager, miserly or begrudging.

Here’s one more among many differences between the Tennessee Valley Approach and Georgia’s: The latter has a Public Service Commission looking out for the public interest. TVA is accountable to no one except the hands-off, do-little Congress that created this quasi-public/private behemoth.

Anyone for change? For lifting the lid on solar with genuine support?

Gary Wolf is co-owner of and lead installer for Sundog Solar Energy LLC in Nashville, Tennessee, and writes The Sundog Blog.

 

Author

  • NABCEP-certified solar PV installer and licensed Tennessee electrical contractor. An original employee of the original full-time solar PV installer in Tennessee and its first crew leader (2007-2010). Established and taught a solar installer training program at a state technology center (2010). Owns Sundog Solar Energy (2011-present). Currrently under contract with another company to provide online monitoring services, direct O&M and lead installations. Moved to Belize, Central America, September 2014. Former journalist and journalism professor.

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NABCEP-certified solar PV installer and licensed Tennessee electrical contractor. An original employee of the original full-time solar PV installer in Tennessee and its first crew leader (2007-2010). Established and taught a solar installer training program at a state technology center (2010). Owns Sundog Solar Energy (2011-present). Currrently under contract with another company to provide online monitoring services, direct O&M and lead installations. Moved to Belize, Central America, September 2014. Former journalist and journalism professor.

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