Correction: This story has been updated with the correct date of the TVA board meeting.
Environmental and consumer groups opposed to changes in power prices and programs by the Tennessee Valley Authority took to the streets Saturday to run around the agency's power headquarters to protest what they claim is the runaround TVA is giving about power rates and bills.
Nearly two dozen protesters conducted the 0.5-kilometer run, billed as the "TVA Run-A-Round," to offer what they say is a tongue-in-cheek taste of TVA's own medicine.
TVA rates vs. costs
* TVA residential electric rates are the 23rd lowest among the top 100 utilities
* TVA industrial electric rates are the 7th lowest among the top 100 utilities
But high costs:
* The average monthly residential electric bill in Tennessee in 2016 was $128.89 — the fifth highest of any state and 14.5 percent above the U.S. average. Residential electricity bills were highest that year at $145.55 a month in Alabama, also in the TVA service territory.
Sources: Energy Information Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority
TVA rates are among the lowest 25 percent of U.S. electricity utilities, and the average cost of delivered power has risen less than a half of a percent per year over the past five years, or less than one fourth the overall inflation rate.
"The trajectory we are on will provide sustainable low rates and high reliability, in my opinion, for at least the next decade," TVA President Bill Johnson told the TVA board last week.
But because so many homes and businesses in the Tennessee Valley are poorly insulated and rely upon inefficient heating, cooling and lighting, power bills in the region are still among the highest in the nation. TVA also has cut back on many of its energy efficiency programs, although it still supports its Energy Right audits and targeted programs for low-income homeowners in its five biggest cities.
"TVA keeps touting its low rates, but in the end, that's not what you see on your electric bills," said Laura Humphrey, an energy policy associate for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy who helped organize today's "run around" the TVA Chattanooga Office Complex. "When you combine rates, usage and the increasing fixed charges TVA is imposing on local power companies, then you have a really high energy burden. We feel like TVA is just giving us the runaround and isn't addressing the concerns we keep raising."
At Wednesday's meeting of the TVA board in Knoxville, NAACP leaders from across the state appealed to the utility to remove the new grid access charge adopted earlier this year and to restore more incentives for homeowners to install solar panels and energy conservation measures.
Johnson said the energy burden is higher in the valley for a host of reasons, including the climate, the poor housing stock and the relatively low income in the region. Although power bills may be most important to consumers, the TVA Act directs the agency to maintain "rates as low as are feasible."
"This is our statutory requirement, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm pretty intent on abiding by federal statutes," Johnson said.
Shedding light on solar costs, subsidies
The TVA president also bristled last week at claims that solar generation would help ease the energy burden in the Tennessee Valley.
"Part of the energy burden today that low-income and other folks have is paying the subsidy for the energy choices that other people make," Johnson said. "In America, you can put as much solar as you want on your home or business, but the question is how much you want your neighbor to help pay for it."
TVA has phased out the premium prices it once paid for solar power generation, although solar generators still qualify for federal income tax credits that help finance many such projects.
TVA claims it has contracted to buy $8 billion of renewable power over the next 20 years, but Johnson said the terms of those solar, wind and other renewable power purchase agreements are private and the agency has declined to disclose the terms, costs or investments in the projects.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, TVA declined to detail the $8 billion it says it is spending, claiming such contracts "are confidential commercial and financial information that is pre-decisional and deliberative."
TVA has contracted to buy wind-generated power for independent power producers and is offering community solar projects in Chattanooga and other major markets, offering the solar purchase or lease option for community solar to more than 1.4 million persons.
"By the end of the year, I also think you'll see us make an announcement of a significant [solar power] purchase in the amount of a couple hundred megawatts, and I think over the next couple of years you'll see a couple of those size announcements for more solar," Johnson said Wednesday.
TVA is building more such renewable power, in part, to meet the demand by major companies such as Google, Amazon and other businesses expanding in the Tennessee Valley.
But TVA still gets less than 1 percent of its energy from solar and Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, called TVA claims "misleading and false" and questioned why a public utility is "allow the staff to block transparent information."
TVA board adds day for listening session
In response to such public concerns, TVA directors agreed Wednesday to change how they conduct the listening sessions before their quarterly board meetings when any member of the public is allowed to address the entire board for three minutes. TVA Director Eric Satz, chairman of TVA's external relations committee, conceded that the format for the public listening sessions the board has conducted over the past several years before each of their public meetings "is not working." As a result, the board voted to add an extra day to its quarterly public meetings and to set aside time on the day before each board meeting to hear public comments about TVA.
"Our hope is that listening session becomes less formal and intimidating without a stage or lights or cameras to allow more people to come forward," Satz said.
TVA Chairman Richard Howorth said TVA has numerous avenues for public comment on its programs and activities, and he said adding a day for the public listening session to give more time for the board to consider such input "is another step in the right direction."
"As a public entity, TVA must balance many competing interests," he said. "Even though TVA cannot please all stakeholders all the time, what we can do is listen and consider those different perspectives."
The first such new public listening session will be conducted ahead of the Nov. 14 TVA board meeting scheduled in Counce, Tennessee.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.