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Hazel Benford, a homeowner on Fairleigh Street, speaks about the benefits the Home Energy Upgrade program has provided her during a press conference Wednesday, June 12, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Benford's home is one of 250 homes that have undergone energy efficiency renovations through the Home Energy Upgrade program.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which cut out many of the rebates, loans and other subsidies it once offered for energy efficiency improvements, trails most other utilities in helping its customers to limit their power consumption, according to a new study on energy efficiency in the South.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), an environmental group that is urging utilities to promote efficiency and cleaner power, said TVA now ranks near the bottom among electric utilities in the Southeast for energy efficiency and provided less than 3% as much aid for energy efficiency as the U.S. average in 2019. Only Alabama Power ranks lower in the region.

"TVA has gutted its investment in energy efficiency over the last decade," said Forest Bradley-Wright, the energy efficiency program director for SACE. "Its low-income weatherization program now requires matched funds from local utilities and residential programs are limited to educational resources that do not drive significant, long-term savings or jobs."

TVA continues to provide free energy audits and advice to help both residential and business customers to identify energy-efficient improvements they can take to lower their power use and electric bills. Even with the limits imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, TVA's Energy Right program assisted 59,000 customers across the Tennessee Valley to identify ways to cut their energy use.

 

POWER SHIFT AT TVA

But in 2018, TVA revamped its support for energy efficiency to limit its direct payments for energy improvements except in targeted low-income areas.

"We continue to offer our customers programs to promote energy efficiency, but the TVA Act says we must focus on keeping rates low and that is what we have tried to do," then TVA President Bill Johnson said two years ago when TVA trimmed its energy efficiency programs to help control utility expenses. "Appliances, water heaters, furnaces and electric motors are getting more energy efficient, so the market is responding to this demand."

But the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy insists that utilities need to do more to encourage energy efficiency to help the United States cut its carbon emissions to limit climate change.

"Energy efficiency is a low-cost, clean energy resource that reduces energy waste and carbon emissions while lowering customer bills," said Heather Pohnan, energy policy manager for SACE. "But too many utilities, including some of the Southeast's largest, fail to serve the efficiency needs of their customers and instead continue to over-rely on outdated fossil fuel generation."

 

ENERGY EFFICIENT PARTNERSHIPS

TVA officials said the federal utility remains committed to energy efficiency and is working with its local power companies and other nonprofits to encourage consumers to help reduce energy waste and inefficiency. TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said it is unfair to compare TVA as a wholesale power utility with Southern utilities like Duke and Southern Co., that directly serve all users in their territories.

TVA power is distributed in its 7-state region through 153 local municipalities and power cooperatives which also offer energy efficiency assistance and often match TVA's funding support for such programs.

In Chattanooga, EPB Vice President J. Ed. Marston said the city-owned utility "remains very committed" to supporting energy efficiency and provides personnel and funding support for both TVA's Energy Right program and local nonprofits such as green/spaces to aid homeowners and businesses find ways to reduce energy use.

"In a typical year, we work one-on-one with more than 1,100 residential customers to provide them with a free Home Energy Checkup complete with recommendations about ways they can improve energy efficiency and reduce cost," Marston said. "Since the onset of the pandemic, we have begun offering virtual Home Energy Checkups, so we can continue to provide this important service."

EPB was also one of the first local power companies to implement TVA's Home Uplift program, which aids residents in low-income neighborhoods with direct payments to install home insulation and energy-efficient windows, along with more energy-efficient water heaters and air conditioners. TVA has invested more than $9.8 million to match local Home Uplift programs across the Valley, Hopson said.

EPB has completed 380 home energy renovations through its Home Uplift program that have improved energy efficiency by an average of 26%, Marston said.

At its own downtown office, EPB also has worked to improve its own energy efficiency to earn LEED Gold status from the U.S. Green Building Council last year.

ENERGY BURDEN IN MEMPHIS

TVA President Jeff Lyash has pledged to aid in energy efficiency efforts in targeted low-income areas in cities such as Memphis. Despite TVA's below-average electricity rates, Memphis still has one of the highest energy burdens of any city in America due to lower incomes and higher energy consumption in most households.

SACE and other environmental and civil rights groups, including the Memphis NAACP, had urged TVA not to reduce its energy efficiency programs.

Memphis Light, Gas & Electric — TVA's largest single customer — has not signed a long-term partnership with TVA and is studying the option of replacing TVA with another wholesale power supplier after several studies suggested other wholesale power suppliers could be cheaper and better than TVA.

Even with less investment in energy efficiency, TVA has still outpaced most utilities in cutting its carbon footprint. Since 2005, TVA has reduced its carbon emissions by 60%, nearly double the national pace of such reductions. By 2030, TVA has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 70% below the 2005 levels, according to TVA's corporate sustainability report released last year.

TVA has shut down more than half of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated, turning to more efficient natural gas, nuclear power and renewable sources for more of its energy. With stagnant or even declining demand for electricity in the Tennessee Valley, TVA projects it has adequate generating capacity without having to build new and more expensive power plants.

 

BIDEN'S NEW AGENDA

As America's biggest government-owned utility, TVA's approach to energy efficiency could soon change under the Biden administration if the new president pushes the federal utility to do more with energy conservation.

"As a federal utility, the administration could use TVA as a living laboratory to demonstrate the decarbonization and job-creation potential of efficiency," SACE said in its report on energy efficiency. "It could greatly expand and modernize TVA's current efficiency offerings, and then export the practices across the country to help meet the administration's climate goals. A major investment in energy efficiency could also help put people in the region back to work after the economic pains associated with the COVID19 pandemic."

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

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