Cook: The future's so bright, we don't need maps

Cook: The future's so bright, we don't need maps

November 14th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

A worker is arrested for falsifying safety reports at Watts Bar. The Browns Ferry plant receives the worst safety score possible from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The ash pond spill in Kingston. Stories from Japan.

I'm not an alarmist, but I recently did start to wonder: What if the worst happened at one of the three nuclear power plants near Chattanooga?

So I went online to study the TVA evacuation routes. I'd love to tell you what they said.

But I can't.

Because they're unreadable.

Parts of the online evacuation route maps for Watts Bar and Browns Ferry are illegible. The map - scanned as a PDF file from the original calendar TVA mails to anyone within 10 miles of a reactor - shows color-coded neighborhoods near reactors, but the roads on the map are all blurry, like reading ink that had been dropped in a bathtub.

Not too reassuring, is it?

Thankfully, TVA has a vision on how to help our region make the vital transition to one of the cheapest and cleanest energy systems of all, with no evacuation routes needed.

First, TVA just has to reinstate the program it canceled.

"Tennessee could be the solar capital of the South," said Gil Milear-Hough, president of Tennessee Solar Energy Institute. "Solar is the fastest-growing industry in the country right now."

Currently, one-third - or 6,600 megawatts - of TVA's power supply comes from nuclear. Coal - one of the most damaging energy sources on the planet - supplies TVA with more than 14,000 megawatts of energy, or enough power for two-thirds of its customers.

A few years ago, TVA introduced one of the most encouraging and visionary projects: Generation Partners Program. When home or business owners installed solar panels, TVA promised to pay them an above-market rate for the energy those panels produce.

Solar panels are like tiny energy plants, and when a home or business produces

more than it needs, TVA buys the extra energy back and returns it to the overall power grid. Generation Partners subsidized - wonderfully - this push toward solar installation projects.

"Tennessee went from having 300 kilowatts of solar to 5 megawatts last year to 11 megawatts right now, with 60 megawatts in the pipeline," Hough said.

TVA funded the program with Green Power Switch. On your electric bill, you have the option of buying blocks of green power: adding a few more dollars to your bill to help TVA fund Generation Partners, which currently has 699 participants.

Not enough people are funding the Green Power Switch. Because of this, TVA announced earlier this year it would cap the size of Generation Partner projects it subsidized, from 200 kilowatts (appropriate for business and industry) down to 50 kw (the common size of residential solar projects).

Hough says it's like unplugging one of the most effective and promising programs in the region.

"We've had problems with out-of-state investors (because of this) who are seeing negative signs and now looking other places," said Hough. "You can't go from offering big incentives to no incentives. We want a slow ramping down of the program, not a quick jerking back and forth."

TVA claims the program's success put them at a $5 million shortfall. Out of 9 million TVA customers, roughly 11,000 residential customers and 500 businesses purchase Green Power Switch.

First, you and I have to - we must - encourage this by paying a bit more on our energy bill with Green Power Switch. Send a message to TVA that you want clean energy and are willing to pay for it.

Second, TVA needs to reinstate its program for large-scale solar projects and prioritize it like any other energy program in its annual budget. Imagine if TVA gave customers the option of funding coal plants by paying more on their monthly bill, but put billions of budgeted dollars into the formation of a solar power grid.

TVA recently approved the construction of a new reactor at Bellefonte in North Alabama. It will fund it by adding roughly $1.50 to your energy bill for a total estimated cost of $5 billion.

And they cancel the Generation Partners program because of a $5 million shortfall?

"Solar is cheaper than nuclear power. I see signs TVA is looking at solar energy more seriously than ever before," Hough said. "It's no longer warm and fuzzy marketing. It can be a critical piece of the power supply.

"The future is so bright, it's mindboggling."

TVA first must make legible its online evacuation routes. Then, it needs to continue to support programs that make evacuation something we never have to worry about.

David Cook can be reached at davidcook@blumail.org.