TVA ramps wind power, but environmentalist call for more efficiency

TVA ramps wind power, but environmentalist call for more efficiency

October 29th, 2013 by Ellis Smith and Louie Brogdon in Local - Breaking News

Turbine 1, a Vestas V80 model, is seen at the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm, in Oliver Springs, Tenn., on Monday. The V80s reach 265 feet in height, with 139-foot-long blades.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

Several turbines are seen at the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm in Oliver Springs, Tenn., on Monday. The Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm houses eighteen turbines.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

Ed Stephens, program director for the renewable energy program, speaks with members of the media at the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm, in Oliver Springs, Tenn., on Monday.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

As the Tennessee Valley Authority cranks up the 18-month processes to decide how it will generate power for the next 20 years, officials say renewable energy -- namely wind -- will play a big role.

Environmental groups say renewables are a great move, but the utility also needs to use energy more efficiently before it tries generating more.

TVA spokesman Mike Bradley said Monday at the authority's Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm in Oliver Springs, Tenn., that after buying more than 1,500 megawatts of energy from wind farms in the Midwest -- and once construction at Watt's Bar nuclear plant is complete -- more than half of the authority's power production will come from noncarbon-producing sources.

"That is significant for TVA. With concerns about carbon levels and climate change, noncarbon power is a big factor," he said.

The authority signed nine contracts this month with wind farms in Iowa, Kansas and Illinois, which will bring 1,542 megawatts of energy in the Tennessee Valley. It also buys 27 megawatts from Buffalo Mountain, the first and only commercial, utility-scale wind farm in the Southeast. All that wind power accounts for about half of the power the authority pulls from renewables, not including energy made from hydroelectric dams, he said.

Bradley said harnessing wind for power will continue, as long as wind turbine technology continues to improve -- and all indications show it will.

Ed Stephens, program manager for TVA's renewable energy program, said efficiency in turbine technology has tripled over three years. When TVA started its Buffalo Mountain project, it started with three, 213-foot, 2-megawatt turbines. Since then, it signed contracts with Invenergy, which built 15 additional turbines, each taller than the Rebublic Parking building on Chestnut Street.

Now, the farm generates enough electricity to power nearly 3,400 homes in the Tennessee Valley.

Sandy Kurtz, with the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, urged top EPB officials to pressure TVA into investing more on energy efficiency.

The vocal proponent of sustainable practices used an environmental awards presentation at EPB's headquarters Friday as a chance to press the city-owned utility to take up the bully pulpit and convince others -- specifically TVA -- to adopt greener business practices.

"What I'm asking is for the board [of EPB] to send a letter to TVA requesting them to increase their energy efficiency," she said.

TVA's energy efficiency budget has remained at $100 million for the last three years, which limits the utility's energy savings to 0.3 percent of annual sales, she said. But a recent study by TVA itself found that the federal agency could save enough within three years to replace the power produced by the Gallatin coal plant, mainly through savings in the residential sector, she said. Currently, TVA reports 1.1 percent of its power portfolio includes improvements in energy efficiency.

"If they want to be a leader in the Southeast for energy efficiency -- and they say they do -- it's time to get on the bandwagon and do it, as their own projections say they can do it," Kurtz said.

As she spoke, Kurtz was flanked by contractors who earn their living by retrofitting buildings to become more environmentally friendly, who said that without action by TVA, many projects may stall.

Ethan Collier, who founded Collier Construction at age 24, told EPB's board that a quick payback is essential if homeowners and businesses are going to spend the money on green renovations. And there can't be a quick payback without TVA's help.

"People think that for a residential property, a 10- to 12-year payback is good enough, but it's not close to good enough," he said. "People are so transient nowadays, you need a one to three-year payback in order for it to make financial sense."

To achieve those energy savings, property owners will need special rebates from TVA, he said. Without special incentives, businesses can't justify the expense of many green projects, he said.

"We've seen projects that were going forward, but then TVA stops their program and the project stops," he said. "It basically gets tabled until TVA's project comes back up."

EPB deferred action on Kurtz's proposal until the utility's staff can make a recommendation.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6315.