TVA should expand investment in solar
The Tennessee Valley Authority has a golden opportunity this month, as it sets its budget for 2015 to keep up with neighboring utilities that are making significant investments in solar power, to listen to its customers clamoring for this renewable clean energy source.
When compared to neighboring utilities, TVA's current commitment to solar leaves much room for improvement. Based on current plans through 2016, Duke Energy in North Carolina will have more than three times the solar capacity per customer than TVA. Georgia is now the fastest-growing solar market in the nation, and Georgia Power will have seven times more solar per customer than TVA by 2016.
TVA is currently spending only a drop in the bucket on solar compared to what it spends just on cleaning up dirtier sources of energy. TVA's customers are currently on the hook for $1.2 billion of pollution control measures at the Gallatin coal plant, over $1.2 billion to clean up the Kingston coal ash spill and at least $1.5 billion in cost overruns at the Watts Bar nuclear plant — a total of over $400 per customer. In contrast, this year TVA has committed only $40 million towards new solar investments, or about $4 dollars per customer.
TVA customers are eager to take advantage of the benefits of solar, particularly as the costs have been rapidly declining. The cost to install solar panels on homes and businesses has dropped by 37 percent since 2010. Homeowners and businesses have a critical window of opportunity to receive the 30 percent federal investment tax credit on their purchase of a solar system, since this credit is set to be rolled back at the end of 2016.
The recent demand for solar energy across the state has resulted in a 22 percent increase in solar jobs, including local installation jobs that can't be outsourced. Currently, Tennessee ranks 12th in the nation for solar jobs, with 133 companies providing 2,800 people with clean energy jobs.
TVA's energy mix decisions can spur more job growth in the state, since development of solar energy has been shown to produce more jobs per unit of generation than other forms of energy development, including coal and natural gas.
TVA could unleash the potential for solar in the state by expanding its solar programs for homeowners, businesses and solar farm developers, and not allowing customers to idle on a waiting list to participate. Over the past few years the cap on participation has created a cycle of boom and bust periods that have left solar installation crews with little to no work for half the year. It has driven companies to relocate to more solar-friendly states such as Georgia and North Carolina.
Investment in solar technology results in clean air and good jobs that strengthen our communities. TVA can and should act now to expand its investment in solar power, being confident that solar energy is a prudent and cost-effective investment in Tennessee's future.
Anne Davis is managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. Stephen Smith is executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Members of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Tennessee Solar Industries Association contributed to this column.