published Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

TVA lets in more sunshine

The Tennessee Valley Authority is agreeing to let some more sunshine into its renewable energy program, starting in August.

But solar enthusiasts complain that the move may not be enough to avoid a kind of solar eclipse for many in the burgeoning industry.

With its annual allotment for its Green Power Provider incentives already filled in the first four months of the year, solar installers complained that they will soon lay off workers unless TVA agrees to expand the program. In meetings with solar industry representatives this week, TVA agreed to expand the initial 7.5 megawatt-allotment for its solar incentive program for 2013 up to 10 megawatts.

"TVA was an industry leader, and we're still offering more programs and available capacity than others in the industry," TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said Friday.

But those in the solar industry complain that TVA's credit expansion isn't enough to meet the demand or prevent layoffs in the industry.

"This [extra credit] is going to last one day because this will be fully subscribed even before August ever gets here," said Steve Johnson, founder and president of Lightwave Solar, a 7-year-old company that was forced to lay off four employees last week after the cap was reached for solar incentives by TVA.

"TVA was an early leader, but I'm afraid they are now going backwards."

Under its Green Partners Program, TVA pays a 9-cent-per kilowatthour premium for solar-generated power from smaller solar generators, who also qualify for an initial $1,000 installation incentive. TVA set a cap on the payments to limit its expenses, and Bradley said the oversubscription to the program proves its appeal.

Last year, Tennessee ranked 14th in the nation in total solar capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, and TVA has made available this year another 100 megawatts of renewable capacity through all of its renewable energy offers, including up to 50 megawatts for solar power.

"We want to encourage solar generation, but the key is to do that without a huge impact on our rates," Bradley said.

But Karl Rabago, a former regulator, utility executive and researcher who has studied solar incentives, said TVA's solar program is too restrictive, underfunded and inadequate to meet consumer demand.

Rabago, a principal for Rabago Energy LLC in Austin, Texas, said solar panels on homes and businesses cut transmission and new generation costs for TVA and ensure stable cost power for decades.

"TVA is not adequately paying for the true value of solar," he said during a meeting with reporters and editors at the Times Free Press.

Last year, TVA spent $8 million -- $2 million of which was paid for in voluntary higher utility payments through the Green Switch Program -- to support solar power producers in the Valley with premium purchases.

"That hardly compares with the $2 billion change order TVA made at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant," Johnson said.

Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said he appreciates TVA's decision this week to add 2.5 megawatts more to the solar incentive program.

"But unless some more significant changes are made between now and when the TVA board approves its budget on Aug. 22, I think we're looking for a continued train wreck and further economic impact for what was a growing and vital industry for our region," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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