TVA lags other utilities in the South in turning to the sun for power

Environmental group calls TVA a 'SunBlocker' for not pursuing more solar power, TVA says it is exploring many ways to decarbonize

Staff File Photo / Lovell Field's Federal Aviation Administration control tower is seen, top center, behind dozens of panels on the solar farm at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.
Staff File Photo / Lovell Field's Federal Aviation Administration control tower is seen, top center, behind dozens of panels on the solar farm at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced last week it is launching one of the biggest purchases of renewable energy for the future, but over the next five years, the federal utility is still projected to generate less than half as much solar power per capita as the average utility in the South, according to a study released Tuesday.

In a new report on Solar in the Southeast, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy calls TVA a "SunBlocker," with the least amount of solar power generation, even though one of TVA's biggest distributors, the Knoxville Utilities Board, was recognized as the top "SunRiser" for promoting the most additional solar power of any local utility in the region through 2025.

Among the 13 major electric utilities in the Southeast, TVA ranks 10th in its current share of solar generating capacity at 121 watts per customer, or only one-fourth as much as the regional average of 484 watts per customer and only 8% as much as the regional leader, Duke Energy Progress in the Carolinas. In Tennessee, the amount of solar power generation is predicted to jump nearly four-fold from 2021 to 2025, rising to 433 watts per customer. But that is still well below the average for the region of 933 watts of solar capacity per customer.

(READ MORE: After coal, does TVA need more natural gas? New study says renewables are cheaper and can be just as reliable)

"Despite the Green Invest projects (that supply entirely renewable power for customers wanting carbon-free power), TVA itself has not matched the pace of solar ambition in the Southeast region and has mathematically returned to the SunBlocker list - the large utilities whose four-year forecast remains below last year's region average," Bryan Jacob, the solar program director for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a Knoxville-based environmental advocacy group, said in a webinar. "TVA is the largest federal public power utility and should be aligned with and leading President (Joe) Biden's executive order to achieve 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2030."

TVA, which has already contracted to buy more than 2,000 megawatts of solar power from independent power producers and other utilities, has pledged to build or buy up to 10,000 megawatts of solar power generating capacity and is already committed to boost its solar generation nearly fourfold by 2025.

Last week, TVA issued one of the nation's largest requests for carbon-free energy with a request for proposals for up to 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free energy that must be operational before 2029.

"We recognize the urgency, and TVA's public power model is the building block for a cleaner future," TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said in a statement in response to the Southern Alliance report. "We are executing a defined strategy to reduce carbon from 2005 levels by 70% by 2030, 80% by 2035, and aspire to be net-zero by 2050. Sit down, buckle up and hold on - TVA is aggressively moving forward with our decarbonization efforts to protect our environment and attract good jobs to our region."

But TVA's most recent appeal for proposals for clean power were not included in the new Solar in the Southeast report, which tallied current solar installations and those planned to be online by 2025.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a webinar that TVA's requests for green energy projects do not commit the utility to buying any of the power yet and much of the renewable energy could come from new forms of nuclear power, hydroelectric units, pumped storage or battery projects.

"They are fishing across the board, and solar is only one of the technologies that TVA is looking at," Smith said. "TVA continues to lag significantly behind the major utilities in the Southeast in their commitment to solar. There is no commitment whatsoever that TVA will actually contract to buy this power."

(READ MORE: EPB is top in energy efficiency promotion among all TVA distributors)

In contrast to TVA announcing plans to buy 5,000 megawatts of carbon-free power by 2029, Florida Power & Light announced last week it will completely decarbonize its generation portfolio by 2045 and buy up to 90,000 megawatts of solar generation.

Smith applauded Florida Power & Light's announcement, which he said verifies the future reliability and cost competitiveness of solar generation in the Southeast.

"We have believed for a long time that solar is going to be a dominant technology for solving the climate crisis for our future," Smith said.

The Southern Alliance study showed that the pace of planned solar installations was slowed in the past year due to supply chain problems, delaying at least 2,000 megawatts of planned projects, including 971 megawatts of solar installations planned by Georgia Power Co. But Smith said he hopes such supply interruptions will not limit future growth in the installation of solar panels to generate electricity and batteries to store such power when the sun doesn't shine.

Although TVA trails neighboring utilities in the share of solar power it produces, TVA still generates more than 60% of its power from carbon-free sources, including more than 40% from its seven nuclear reactors and more than 10% of its power from its 29 hydroelectric dams along the Tennessee River and its tributaries. TVA also contracts to buy both wind and solar power.

To entice its local power companies to sign long-term power purchase agreements with TVA, the federal utility has also granted more flexibility to local utilities to produce some of their power, which Knoxville Utilities Board has done to add 2,344 megawatts of solar generation from 2021 to 2025 - the most of any local utility in the South.

Fiedler said TVA is considering a range of carbon-free generation, not just solar panels, to limit greenhouse emissions from the coal and natural gas plants it plans to eventually phase out.

"Beware of anybody who tells you there is only one way to solve a problem," Fiedler said. "At TVA, we take a holistic approach. We are outcome driven, and there is no single answer to achieving our nation's sustainability targets."

Fiedler also said TVA is working to ensure its future power sources are not just clean, but that they are also reliable, affordable and resilient. TVA has maintained 99.999% reliability in its power delivery for more than two decades.

"It's what our customers expect and deserve, and is more important today than it was decades ago," Fiedler said.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter at @dflessner1.

Solar in the Southeast

Among the top utilities in the Southeast with at least 500,000 customers, here’s how the biggest electricity providers rank in their share of power generated by the sun:1. Duke Energy Progress, 1488 watts of solar per customer.2. Dominion Energy in South Carolina, 1,342 watts of solar per customer.3. Tampa Electric, 1,090 watts of solar per customer.4. Georgia Power, 824 watts of solar per customer.5. Florida Power & Light, 649 watts of solar per customer.6. Duke Energy Carolinas, 630 watts of solar per customer.7. Duke Energy Florida, 467 watts of solar per customer.8. Oglethorpe Power, 361 watts of solar per customer.9. Santee Cooper, 130 watts of solar per customer.10. Tennessee Valley Authority, 121 watts of solar per customer.11. North Carolina Electric Cooperatives, 88 watts of solar per customer.12. Alabama Power, 62 watts of solar per customer.13. Seminole Electric Co-Op, 60 watts of solar per customer.Source: Solar in the Southeast, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

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