TVA's $5-million solar eclipse

TVA's $5-million solar eclipse

May 12th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Steam rises from the cooling tower of the single operating reactor at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Spring City, Tenn. in this 2007 photo. Photo by TVA

It's disappointing to hear that the Tennessee Valley Authority has unplugged its TVA Green Power Providers program, the solar initiative that helped the utility build solar power up to a whopping 1 percent of its electric generation mix.

Solar power was just too successful, and people signed on to invest their own money in it so readily that the utility set capacity limits on the solar segment of its renewable energy programs for 2013. That "capacity" was met within the first four months of the year. And the program may not be reopened.

TVA officials say they don't want to "subsidize" solar power.

The utility -- the one that now has a $2 billion cost overrun for a second reactor at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant -- says the $5 million shortfall in the solar program is too much.

Here's how TVA's solar program worked:

A home or business owner opted to install a solar array on the roof or in the yard. They put up thousands of dollars for a private installation. TVA, looking to build renewable diversity in its power "portfolio," offered a $1,000 upfront assistance payment and contracted with the home or business owner to buy the solar power produced for about 9 cents more than the retail power rate. The difference was credited to the customer's utility bill. The customer also has been eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit on the solar investment.

TVA got help paying its "subsidy" from its companion program called Green Power Switch, through which regular customers volunteered to pay a few cents more for electricity to help TVA obtain renewable energy sources.

When TVA first began pulling back on the Green Power Providers program in July 2011, utility officials said the difference between what Green Power Switch brought in and what TVA paid out as credits to "generation partners" was about $5 million a year.

Let's give that some context over and above the overrun at Watts Bar.

Each of TVA's six operating nuclear reactors makes $1 million a day for the utility that has an $11 billion a year operating budget.

The so-called annual shortfall in the solar program -- that $5 million with an M -- is about the same amount of money that each of TVA's top five executives makes in a year.

But there's another wrinkle.

Would that TVA -- and all of us -- were so steadfast about not subsidizing nuclear, coal and gas for power.

Nationally, within the past decade, federal subsidies have provided $72.5 billion -- that's billion with a B -- for fossil fuels to power our lives, according to the Environmental Law Institute. At the same time, we taxpayers have spent $16.8 billion for corn ethanol subsidies, while traditional renewable energy initiatives such as wind and solar power received $12.2 billion. We've also spent $2.3 billion on carbon capture and storage, a developing technology that would allow coal-burning utilities to capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions.

Other experts have said the nuclear industry has received more than $100 billion in subsidies in the past 50 years.

So it's fair to say that solar power -- the untapped oil well on the roof -- is but a sliver of the overall energy subsidy pie.

But here's the real mind-number.

Oil and coal and gas will eventually be gone. Maybe uranium, too. But the sun will still shine. And if for some reason the sun is gone, too, ratepayers and taxpayers won't need to worry about what powers the light switch.