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Contributed photo from the Tennessee Valley Authority / The planned Skyhawk solar farm in Obion County, Tennesee, includes about 300,000 solar panels over 705 acres, according to Origis Energy.

The Tennessee Valley Authority may still generate most of the power it sells from splitting atoms or burning natural gas and coal, but a growing number of TVA's customers are turning to the sun instead to produce their electricity.

Such powerful differences are not necessarily in conflict. In fact, TVA is embracing such customer choices in power sources through its growing "Green Invest" program that allows participating customers to buy only renewable power at rates that pay the costs for such generation.

Last week, TVA announced two 100-megawatt solar farms are being built in the Tennessee Valley to supply renewable energy for Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Google data centers in Bridgeport, Alabama, and Clarksville, Tennessee.

Miami-based solar developer Origis Energy, which has built nearly 150 solar farms around the world and is partnering with First Solar to develop 212 megawatts of solar power for Knoxville Utilities Board, said it plans to build a 705-acre solar farm in Obion County in Northwest Tennessee to supply Google facilities elsewhere in Tennessee and Northwest Alabama with solar-generated power.

Silicon Ranch Corp., which has built more than 135 solar farms across 14 states including the 9.5-megawatt solar farm at the Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, is building another solar farm in Tullahoma to supply Vanderbilt.

Similar solar arrays have been built under the Green Invest program to supply renewable power for Facebook, General Motors and Knoxville Utilities Board in the Tennessee Valley. Under the TVA-sponsored program, customers wanting to get more or all of their electricity from renewable sources sign up for the Green Invest program and get blocks of power generated from solar panels or other renewable sources at rates sufficient to cover the costs of such generation.

To qualify for federal tax incentives for solar generation, the solar generation is being built by private solar companies like Origis and Silicon Ranch and then sold to TVA for distribution to participants in the Green Invest program and other TVA customers.

The new solar generation helps customers like Google meet their long-term sustainability goals with new renewable energy projects. To power its data centers in Alabama and Tennessee, Google had already purchased a total of 266 megawatts of power generated by multiple solar farms linked into the TVA electric grid.

Reid Spolek with Data Center Energy Strategy at Google said the search engine giant is the world's biggest corporate buyer of renewable energy and has set a goal of being carbon-neutral with its energy use in the next 20 years by either buying renewable power or offsetting its use of carbon sources by planting more trees or employing other means to sequester carbon.

"This Tennessee solar milestone is another demonstration of the success of TVA's Green Invest partnership," said Johan Vanhee, Origis Energy chief commercial officer and chief procurement officer. "Such utility innovations are helping Google reach its aim to be the first major company to operate carbon free by 2030."

In the past two years, TVA estimates Green Invest has generated $1.4 billion in economic activity in TVA's service area by helping to land companies like Google and Facebook that want to buy only renewable energy and by enticing more solar energy developers to build within the Valley to supply such customers.

Facebook is building an $800 million data center in Gallatin, Tennessee and a $750 million data center in Huntsville, Alabama. Google has built similar $600 million data centers in Alabama and Tennessee. Google built its first data center in the region on part of TVA's former Widows Creek Fossil Plant in Northeast Alabama.

Both Facebook and Google have pledged to use more renewable energy and made cleaner power a key part of their growth strategy.

By encouraging solar facilities to be built anywhere in the Valley to help meet that demand, TVA also is helping to create jobs at solar farms often built in rural, less developed areas where land is cheaper and the need for jobs is greater than other areas. Origis estimates the solar array it is building in Northwest Tennessee to supply Google will create about 300 construction jobs.

"TVA's Green Invest can deliver clean, reliable renewable energy at a competitive price – stimulating growth across our seven-state region and giving our region a competitive advantage through public power," said Chris Hansen, TVA's vice president of Origination and Renewables. "TVA is a job creator, and we are looking for creative ways to use our solar programs to bring high-paying jobs to the communities we serve. By integrating public-private partnerships with clean energy, we can make our region the premier destination for businesses that want to achieve their sustainability goals."

Local power companies and universities are also using Green Invest to build more solar power. Last week, work was started on a 100-megawatt solar farm in Tullahoma to help power Vanderbilt University with renewable solar power.

"We hope this groundbreaking partnership between government, business, and universities will be a model of innovative collaboration to address the most important issues of our time," Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said during a ceremony on Tuesday.

While TVA is facilitating businesses that have made pledges for carbon-free energy, TVA has been less aggressive than most utilities in the South in developing its own solar power. With no projected need to build additional baseload generation for TVA's portfolio over the next two decades, TVA has built fewer solar farms for its own generation than neighboring utilities in Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas where states have encouraged more renewable power and offered utility incentives for such energy. Less than 2% of TVA's power now comes from solar generation.

A study earlier this year by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy called TVA "a solar blocker" for not doing more to promote solar and other renewable energy. Despite the recent solar additions in parts of the Valley, Chattanooga gets only about one third as much electricity from solar power as the average of all utilities in the Southeast.

Stephen Smith, the executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said TVA last year cut the price it pays customers who generate solar power below the retail rate "which absolutely killed the market in Tennessee." Despite recent gains, TVA also has built less of its own solar power than many other electric utilities in the Southeast.

Nonetheless, the long-range power plan adopted by the Tennessee Valley Authority last year envisions the federal utility and its customers adding as much as 14 gigawatts of additional solar generation by 2040, which would be more than 20 times the amount of solar generation now in the Valley.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.

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