The nation's largest public utility continues to lag behind much of the Southeast in solar growth, and the gap is getting wider as critics claim the Tennessee Valley Authority has stunted the renewable technology in an attempt to avoid downsizing its infrastructure.
TVA is in the midst of its slowest year of solar growth since 2011 after years of falling behind much of the region, according to data provided by a coalition of groups in favor of solar energy. TVA's three solar programs are all down drastically in growth year-over-year, with one failing to sign any new contracts in 2018.
"I think it would be smart for TVA to be looking over the horizon rather than trying to discourage rapid uptake of renewable power sources," said former EPA Chief of Staff Michael Vandenbergh, now a leading scholar in environmental and energy law at Vanderbilt University. "I think in the long run, to avoid becoming the Sears or [JC]Penney of a few decades from now, the smart move would be to embrace the future rather than to try to slow it down."
North Carolina, Georgia and Florida all exponentially outproduce Tennessee in solar energy. North Carolina soon will have more than 6,000 megawatts of solar power. Georgia Power has surpassed 2,000 megawatts and is quickly trending toward 3,000, and Florida is approaching 2,000 megawatts. Meanwhile, TVA just recently reached 500 megawatts, and solar growth could slow more in coming years.
TVA conducts three programs: Green Power Providers for residential and small businesses, Distributed Solar Solutions for larger community scale solar in partnership with local power companies, and large-scale solar through a request for proposals process. Growth for each program has slowed. Green Power Providers is down about 66 percent from last year, the Distributed Solar program is being re-examined after its pilot phase, and large-scale solar requests for proposals sought last year have yet to be awarded, according to a TVA spokesman.
TVA data also shows the company had fewer solar installations this year than in any year since 2009 and they have dropped off significantly since its peak in 2012 and 2013. The only states that have installed less solar than Tennessee so far this year are Wyoming, Montana, Kentucky and Mississippi, according to GreenTech Media research — a market analysis and advisory firm on the transformation of the global electricity industry.
TVA officials say they are pleased with the solar program's year-over-year growth. Fifty-five percent of TVA's energy is carbon free, and the utility expects to see that number rise to 60 percent in the next several years. The company also plans to invest $8 billion in the next 20 years to increase renewable energy, spokesman Scott Fiedler said.
Previously, TVA leaders said they expected to announce more projects before the end of the quarter, which has since passed, but that doesn't mean big projects aren't coming, they said.
"We're looking at it over the long term," Fiedler said. "We're still happy with what we're seeing, and we're looking at how it benefits everybody in the Tennessee Valley to bring on energy that is clean and provided at a low cost."
Five energy and environmental groups — including a TVA watchdog organization — believe the utility company's solar program is broken or drastically lagging. They claim TVA failed to adapt to major changes in the energy sector and is in danger of having overbuilt its power supply.
"What TVA should be doing, and what other utilities are doing, is looking down the road and seeing customers are moving away from being solely dependent on them," Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Executive Director Stephen Smith said. "They should be downsizing their system to accommodate that low growth and realize it isn't going to be the same as it's always been."
The groups, part of the Tennesseans for Solar Choice Coalition, claim the power producer has implemented a system that discourages energy efficiency and renewable power. They filed a lawsuit last month against TVA's move to implement fixed fees. Fixed rates force customers to pay a mandatory electricity fee regardless of their energy usage, they argue. However, TVA says the fees are needed to ensure fairness.
"It ensures that everyone pays their fair share for power so we're not subsidizing one group's power against another," Fiedler said.
Others claim TVA isn't doing enough in the meantime to remain competitive with surrounding states and ensure Tennessee is on a path to a cleaner future.
"When TVA's own solar programs are broken, how are their customers supposed to have a real choice about going solar?," said Debbie Dooley, president of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and co-founder of the Tea Party movement, in a statement.
Data Sources, Methods and Assumptions
Future projections are informed by datasets including Greentech Media (GTM Research), the EIA Annual Energy Outlook, utility Integrated Resource Plans, interconnection queues, identified projects as well as utility announcements of ongoing and future plans, along with information gathered from solar developers and professional judgement of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy staff experts.