The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to more than double the amount of electricity it gets directly from the sun within the next decade to help move toward a carbon-free power system by 2050.
TVA President Jeff Lyash told utility directors Wednesday that the federal utility will begin awarding contracts this summer for about 6,000 megawatts of additional solar power and battery storage to help meet its long-term goal of having 10,000 megawatts of solar generation and a carbon-free power grid by 2050.
TVA received proposals for nearly 14,000 megawatts of renewable and other clean energy in response to its appeal for carbon-free energy offers. Lyash said TVA's review of the offers determined 6,000 megawatts of proposals, representing about 40 solar farms across the Tennessee Valley, were workable and efficient enough to be pursued by TVA. Lyash said he hopes the solar arrays can be built and produce power by 2032 or sooner.
"We are committed to developing pathways to a clean energy future," Lyash said during a TVA board meeting in Norris, Tennessee. "We must rapidly expand our clean energy resources such as solar, new nuclear and pumped storage -- and we are moving aggressively."
TVA plans to begin awarding contracts for the additional solar power within the next 60 days.
Not all of the power offers to TVA were deemed to be either viable or cost-competitive, he noted. With the supply chain problems created during the pandemic, the cost and timetable for building many new solar projects escalated. Lyash said the cost of most solar projects rose between 30% and 100% from their pre-pandemic levels. Some of TVA's projects had to be delayed or scrapped in the past couple of years due to supply problems.
Lyash declined to specify prices proposed under the renewable energy proposals, which he said are still being finalized. He said solar power generation is likely to end up being more expensive than TVA's existing cost of power. But solar generation is still needed to help meet TVA's overall sustainable goals for both carbon-free power production and cost-competitive electricity, he said.
"While these projects are not lower than our current price of power or some of the alternatives, it doesn't make us any less committed," Lyash said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "Our customers want this, and we need to have a diverse portfolio, and we think this move helps us continue the path to decarbonization. So we are leaning into this as far we think we can while balancing affordability, reliability and resilience."
In its annual sustainability report released Wednesday, TVA said it has cut its carbon emissions by 54% since 2005 even though carbon emissions increased last year from the previous year as a result of growth in TVA power demand.
"We're still headed in the right direction and moving toward a path for about 80% reduction (in overall carbon emissions) by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050," TVA Chief Sustainability Officer Rebecca Tolene said in an interview with the Times Free Press. "But factors like our overall load growth, changes in our generation mix and the weather can really impact the year-to-year carbon numbers as we move toward this longer-term journey."
The additional solar contracts to be awarded this summer "represent a substantial investment and move toward our decarbonization goal," she said.
TVA has outpaced the nation in carbon reduction due to its greater reliance upon nuclear power from seven nuclear reactors and 29 hydroelectric dams. TVA still trails most U.S. utilities in the share of power from solar and wind generation.
A study last year by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy found TVA generates less than half as much solar power per capita as the average utility in the South. Among the 13 major electric utilities in the Southeast, TVA ranks 10th in its share of solar generating capacity at 121 watts per customer, or 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.
TVA is also pursuing the next generation of nuclear power by developing plans for a small nuclear reactor near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, among other efforts. Until such carbon-free power is built and activated, TVA is also planning to add more natural gas power plants, which he said still reduces carbon emissions by 60%.
"There is no one answer to achieving our region and nation's clean energy goals," Lyash said.
TVA is adding more solar and other renewable energy sources to help replace its aging coal plants, which TVA plans to completely phase out by 2035. TVA once operated 59 coal-fired units across a seven-state region, but TVA has either already closed or authorized the shutdown of 75% of those units.
The TVA board met Wednesday at Norris Dam, the site of the first dam the utility erected after being created in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Construction of Norris Dam began some 90 years ago shortly after the TVA was formed, and it was completed in 1936. On its website about the history of Norris Dam, TVA says the Norris Lake reservoir created by the dam "also helped form the backbone of the Tennessee State Park system."