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Volkswagen's 65-acre solar farm stretches to the north from its main buildings at the automotive factory campus. Silicon Ranch, which built the VW solar array, plans to build a 35-megawatt farm in Bedford County to supply Vanderbilt University with more carbon-free power. / Staff file photo by Tim Barber

Vanderbilt University is turning to the sun to help it meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, signing a landmark agreement Wednesday with Nashville Electric Service (NES) and the Tennessee Valley Authority to buy power from a new 35 megawatt solar farm planned in Bedford County.

Nashville-based solar developer Silicon Ranch, which has installed more than 2 million solar modules at farms across the country including at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, will build the solar array for NES. Under the agreement with Vanderbilt, the university will buy the solar-generated power through NES under a unique and more flexible wholesale power arrangement known as the Green Invest program.

"Silicon Ranch and TVA have forged a strong partnership through the successful development of more than 30 solar projects across the Valley, and it is our sincere honor to expand our relationship with TVA," said Silicon Ranch Co-Founder Matt Kisber.

Similar to renewable energy contracts TVA and its distributors have negotiated with Google and Facebook in Tennessee and Alabama, Vanderbilt will buy the solar power and effectively pay for the new solar farm over time. Green Invest leverages long-term agreements to build new, large-scale renewable energy installations in the Valley through a competitive bid process.

"This solution is a model that can be used throughout the region as TVA helps drive the growth of renewable energy at all scales," TVA President Jeff Lyash said Wednesday.

Nashville Electric Service is the first of TVA's five biggest municipal power utilities to sign a 20-year purchase agreement with TVA, which allows for the Green Invest option along with a 3.1% rebate on power costs. Memphis Light Gas & Electric, TVA's largest customer, is studying whether or not to continue buying power from TVA and EPB, Knoxville Utilities and Huntsville Utilities are still considering whether to sign a long-term purchase agreement with TVA.

The solar farm being built to supply Vanderbilt will cut about 70% of the university's greenhouse gas emissions. This will be the equivalent of nearly 7,000 cars driven for one year or 5,000 homes utilizing electricity for one year.

TVA already generates about 60% of its electricity from carbon-free sources, primarily nuclear and hydroelectric generation.

Although TVA has nearly twice the national average of carbon-free power generation, it lags most of the nation in its support for energy efficiency. A study released by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Wednesday showed that TVA's energy efficiency efforts are less than one fourth of the national average.

"TVA was one of the first utilities to prioritize energy efficiency as part of resource planning back in 2011, but performance has consistently fallen short of plans," said Forest Bradley-Wright, the energy efficiency director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "The most recent integrated resource plan for TVA took a significant turn for the worse for energy efficiency by using unrealistic costs and the effect has been that funding for efficiency programs have been slashed."

TVA now has no overall efficiency resource strategy and provides minimal funding for low-income weatherization, Bradley-Wright said. As a result, SACE said energy use per capita remains much higher in the Tennessee Valley than in other parts of the country.

TVA continues to support weatherization programs and energy efficiency aid for low-income households, but it does not provide the assistance that other states like North Carolina mandate and, as an independent federal agency, TVA is more free to set its own approach to energy use than in most states.

TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said TVA takes multiple approaches to energy conservation, working with other local government, business and non-profit groups and targeting assistance to those least able to afford efficiency measures with aid, partnerships and education..

"We try to work with local power companies and state agencies to maximize our funds and we believe that through education we can target the root cause to promote energy efficiency," Fiedler said.

The TVA Act mandates that the agency keep electric rates as low as possible, not that it necessarily cuts overall power bills by reducing energy use.

Bradley-Wright said local power companies in the Tennessee Valley need to encourage and work with TVA to do more to aid customers to save energy and thereby reduce their power costs, rather than just focus on keeping power rates as low as possible.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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