TVA unveiled a new solar project this month that’s split across two sites in Tennessee and Alabama. It will provide over 300 megawatts of power to Facebook’s new data center in Huntsville.
Environmentalists are praising the move, saying it's a good step toward the spread of renewable energy. But, they say they’d like to see more deals struck with small businesses and homeowners in the region — and at a faster rate.
“If our grid is more carbon-intensive than other parts of the country, then we’re going to fall behind,” says Michael Vandenbergh, a professor of environmental law at Vanderbilt University. “The genuine challenge that TVA faces is that it gets revenue from selling electricity. ... And over time, the interest of the people in the valley is for TVA to generate energy from non-polluting, more efficient sources.”
Environmental groups sued TVA in September. They allege TVA is discouraging homeowners and small businesses from adopting more efficient renewable energy.
Renewables, environmentalists say, present a difficult situation because the Tennessee Valley Authority would sell less energy. But, they argue, adopting renewables more quickly would help the region develop economically and compete with other areas of the country.
Facebook's insistence on green energy for its data center is an example of how national and international companies are committed to reducing their carbon footprint. The biggest such companies can require TVA to provide large amounts of power from renewable sources.
“But what will happen to companies that don’t have the market-power of corporations like Facebook is that they’ll just choose to locate to states like North Carolina, where the grid already has more renewable power available,” says Vandenburgh.
Tennessee lags behind much of the Southeast in solar production. North Carolina is nearing about 6,000 MW, while Georgia Power is approaching 3,000 MW and Florida is nearing 2,000 MW.
With the new Facebook project, Tennessee will have about 500 MW, up from about 300 MW before.
Overall, North Carolina gets about 4.64% of its electricity from solar, data from the Solar Energy Industries Association shows. Tennessee gets about 0.31% of its electricity from solar.
Stephen Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, says the TVA hasn’t been as willing to work with small customers as it has been with larger corporations.
“TVA has not been aggressive in pursuing solar and only now appears willing to do deals with large companies that require solar power as part of their agreement to develop their business in TVA service territory,” Smith says.
Meanwhile, he adds, TVA has been “aggressively interfering with customer-owned solar for both individual households and for small and large businesses.” Smith says TVA initially made a push for solar in the early 2000s, but began to slow down their investments.
Smith claims that's because they were “surprised at how popular it was.”
Data obtained by the Times Free Press in October seems to back him up. It shows the annual number of new TVA solar installations have dropped steadily since 2013.
Scott Fiedler, a spokesperson for TVA, counters that the utility has grown the number of solar installations in the Tennessee Valley from just five in 2000 to 3,775 this year. Through the Green Power Providers program, the utility has worked with over 100 solar installers, he says. And since 2015, TVA has received about 3,000 applications from all types of companies to participate in the company's three solar options.
But the TVA can’t dramatically ramp up solar installations and generation, given their existing investments in fossil fuel and nuclear plants. If it did that, says Fiedler, TVA wouldn’t be able to keep rates low for customers.
“It’s a question of how much, how fast, and who’s gonna pay for it,” he says. “At TVA our goal is keep rates low as feasible. So what we want to do is maintain that balance.”