Opinion: Why can't TVA make solar fly?

Suppose a plane powered solely by solar power circumnavigated the Earth without using a drop of fuel. Suppose it could stay miles and miles above Earth for months at a time, running on nothing more than sunshine.

Suppose it is a drone plane, and with sunlight and earthbound monitoring it is replacing satellites that now provide telecommunications, Earth imaging, disaster response and monitoring of natural resources - all without the environmental damage caused by releases of carbon and chemicals for satellite launches and atmosphere re-entry burns.

You don't have to imagine. There are - and will be - these things. CNN.com Thursday reported on an experimental plane with a wingspan of a Boeing 747 but weighing about same as an SUV. Dubbed Solar Impulse 2 and covered with more than 17,000 solar panels, the plane "showed the world a glimpse of the future of flight," according to CNN.

After its record-breaking, round-the-world foray in 2016 (yes, six years ago, about the same time a certain climate denying administration took office in Washington, D.C.), "it had accomplished its goal."

But now Solar Impulse 2 is getting a new lease on life, CNN writes.

In 2019 the plane was bought by Skydweller Aero, a U.S.-Spanish startup with plans to turn it into the world's first commercially viable "pseudo-satellite." The company spent months modifying it and flew it again in November 2020 (about the same time voters retired the former guy) with 11 more test flights since then.

"We're in the process of turning it into a drone," Skydweller CEO Robert Miller told CNN. "The pilot is still there for safety, but we now have the ability to fly the aircraft totally autonomously."

And, yes. It flies at night on battery power, using energy stored during the day.

Here's the key question: If business-savvy companies and investors can do this, why can't TVA do what it was created to do? Why can't it make the moves to help households and businesses in the South, and specifically those in the Tennessee Valley, put solar power on rooftops?

Already it's possible for solar users to return unneeded electricity to TVA's grid for its use, so a city of solar structures could in fact function like community power plants that could produce not only each structure's electricity but also enough to sell for other uses or to battery-bank for overcast periods. This, friends, would be a carbon-free future.

Asking why TVA can't do this is not a trick question. If smart people can engineer, build and operate a plane that weighs no more than an SUV but has a wingspan that can support 17,000 solar panels, can we not do so much more right here on the ground?

Yet if you read Wednesday's Times Free Press, you probably saw the story about TVA beating its chest about the utility's annual sustainability report which states the Tennessee Valley Authority "remains a leader among U.S. utilities in making carbon cuts."

Never mind that the share of electricity TVA generated from carbon-free sources declined last year as power demand rebounded from the pandemic.

During 2020 when COVID-19 limited economic activity and power demand shrank, TVA's carbon output was down 63% from the levels in 2005 when the Paris Agreement was negotiated.

But last year as power demand rebounded by 4.6%, TVA turned more to the burning of fossil fuels "to meet higher power peaks" and its carbon output now is 57% below 2005 levels.

With the Paris pact, TVA set a goal of cutting carbon emissions 70% by 2030 and 80% by 2035 by phasing out coal-fired generators.

Never mind, too, that TVA's planned reduction has never been enough. President Joe Biden set a goal of making America's electric grid carbon free by 2035, yet TVA - a federally owned utility - is aiming for only an 80% reduction by that time.

It's also important to note that TVA's too-little-too-late goal is to be accomplished mostly by replacing coal with natural gas. That's not much of an improvement in the overall scheme of things since one methane molecule escaped into the atmosphere, while shorter lived, is roughly 90 times more effective at trapping heat than a molecule of carbon dioxide. Can we say more, not less, global warming - at least in the short term?

Making solar and other alternative energy plans are too expensive, you say?

TVA has already spent $1 billion in ratepayer money on 1,500 megawatts of new natural gas plants at shuttered coal plants in Kentucky and Alabama and now is considering similar conversions at its Cumberland and Kingston plants.

The reality is we are spending billions to replace one fossil fuel with another. That's what is too expensive.

Meanwhile, Solar Impulse 2 and its copy cats will be hanging around up in the sky for no fuel cost at all, powering themselves for months on end.

Our homes and businesses could do that, too - if TVA had half the brainpower, imagination, ambition and determination of Skydweller Aero.

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