Misinformation and a Missed Opportunity

Stephen Smith | April 17, 2009 | Energy Policy

The Tennessee Valley Authority Congressional Caucus held a forum on renewable energy yesterday in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The Caucus, which consists of more than 30 U.S. Senators and Representatives from the seven states that TVA serves, is chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) and helps oversee the public utility.

The forum was purported to be a discussion about renewable energy in the Tennessee Valley, but it failed to create the space for a robust and honest conversation about the region’s renewable energy resources.  Instead, the senior senator from Tennessee facilitated a forum that spread confusion, distorted information and missed an important opportunity for a community discussion on energy policy.  The forum was open to the public, but it did not allow comments or questions from the the audience.

With only two of his colleagues in attendance, Senator Alexander opened the forum with a silly photo of a wind turbine soaring above Neyland Stadium, the University of Tennessee’s football stadium.  In his opening remarks, the Senator asserted that it would take years before TVA could produce even 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.  We have documented that the Southeast can meet a near-term renewable energy goal of 15% generation within the next six years.  Our analysis has been publicly available since February 2009, but the Senator’s declaration lacked any apparent foundation.  We invite Senator Alexander to refute our study and to provide us with the data and analysis that support his claim.

The glaring omission of experts in the key fields of biopower (electricity from dedicated energy crops and agriculture and forest waste) and wind power stands out as the forum’s biggest failure.  Wind energy and biopower are the two most important technologies that TVA has to build out a larger renewable energy portfolio. The failure to engage experts from these workhorses of renewable energy would be like having a meeting of the armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff without inviting anyone from the Navy or the Marines.

The Senator railed against wind energy, at times claiming a renewable requirement would somehow require 985 wind turbines stretching the distance from Chattanooga to Bristol (nearly 250 miles according to Google Maps).  No one ever suggested a 250-mile linear wind farm in Tennessee.  If Senator Alexander took more time to understand the technology, then he would know that wind is developed in more concentrated clusters that bring economic develop opportunities to rural areas.

Wind, like other technologies needs to be developed in ways that are both economically prudent and environmentally sensitive.  Our organization would be first in line to oppose wind development that sacrificed local economic opportunities or compromised our state’s natural and cultural heritage.

As evidence of the Tennessee Valley’s unfavorable wind resources, Senator Alexander referred to Buffalo Mountain, home of the region’s only commercial-scale wind farm.  Buffalo Mountain was built in 2000 as a demonstration site for three small 660 kilowatt (kW) turbines. When TVA planned to expand the wind site, SACE and others advocated for the units to be installed at Stone Mountain, near Mountain City, TN, where better wind speeds are available.  The turbines, part of the TVA Green Power Switch, were primarily a pubic relations push instead of a serious effort to develop viable wind in the TVA region.

The minute a wealthy landowner asked NC Attorney General Roy Cooper (who recently won a suit against TVA over coal plant pollution) to write TVA a letter complaining about the turbines being too close to the NC line, TVA cut and ran to the low-wind Buffalo Mountain to expand its wind site.   At yesterday’s forum, Senator Alexander harped on the Buffalo Mountain facility’s low capacity factor, but that is only an example of TVA’s lack of commitment to developing the region’s best available resources.  TVA operates the turbines at its Buffalo Mountain facility well below full capacity to reduce the need for maintenance and routinely takes them offline for extended periods of time.

The Tennessee Valley does have wind energy potential.  The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Eastern Wind Integration and Transmission Study identified a potential for about 2,800 gigawatt hours (GWh) of low-cost wind energy in the TVA region, but TVA isn’t even giving developers a real chance to harness these resources. (Our estimate for the TVA region, which includes medium-cost wind energy identified in a TVA – Appalachain State University study, is about 5,800 GWh.)

Unfortunately, the only Department of Energy panel member, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) director Dr. Thom Mason, failed to acknowledge the studies by NREL and TVA/Appalachain State. Although the DOE is advancing wind development across the country and has exhibited a sustained interest in TVA region wind development, Dr. Mason stated that wind development is not practical in our region.   Overall, however, Dr. Mason presented a coherent and respectable testimony, helping Congressman Davis understand that the majority of our oil imports are used for transportation not electricity production.

Senator Alexander questioned TVA officials about their recent request for proposals (RFP) for renewable energy resources.  TVA received 60 responses.  According to TVA, the quotes for solar were far too expensive.  The responses from bioenergy developers were cost-competitive as were a large number of responses from wind developers, but the best wind proposals came from outside of the region.

After looking at the RFP and speaking to many renewable energy developers in the region, SACE determined that TVA’s request was significantly flawed.  First, it was released over the Christmas break without any advanced notice.  One Southeastern wind energy developer we spoke with said that it would have been a “lucky coincidence” if they happened to have a project ready to propose.  According to the developer, it was as if the proposal was “designed to fail.”  When utilities in Maryland recently put out a request for proposals for renewable energy, they provided four months of advanced notice, while TVA released their request without any warning.  Other significant flaws in TVA’s request for proposals can be found here.

No one has ever said that wind energy is the only or dominant renewable energy resource in the Tennessee Valley.  Across the Southeast, the vast potential of wind potential lies offshore, but Senator Alexander takes every opportunity to cast wind energy in the worst light possible, and he refuses to give it fair consideration.

Senator Alexander appears to want to focus more on research and development for solar, which we all agree is important, rather than advancing policies that will create the market demand for this resource.  Marie Eckstein, Corporate VP and Chief Administrative Officer for Dow Corning, serves on the Board of Directors at Hemlock SemiConductor, one of the large solar manufacturers that recently announced plans to locate in Tennessee. Senator Alexander asked her to name the single most effective action Congress could take to reduce the cost of solar energy, but did she say only focus on research and development?  No.  She told Senator Alexander that accelerating deployment of solar energy through federal policies would help bring the cost down.  She specifically added that a renewable electricity standard and tax incentives provided the best way to accelerate deployment and reduce costs. When pressed further by the Senator she added a “Feed-in-Tariff,” which has been successful in stimulating rapid solar deployment in Germany, to the list of policies that would move solar forward.

The cost of solar is already on its way down, and the Department of Energy says solar energy will achieve grid parity between 2012-2015.  This relies principally on kindling demand so that production achieves “economies of scale.”  The computer industry, which uses similar semi-conductor technology to what is used for photovoltaic cells, succeeded in part because it was able to do just that.

In general, an air of confusion marked the dysfunctional conversation that Senator Alexander facilitated. The Senator tangled terms and units, referring to production capacity in megawatts (MW) compared to energy production in gigawatt hours (GWh).  The national renewable energy standards that are being proposed are based on the amount of electricity produced (expressed as kilowatt-hours, megawatt-hours or gigawatt-hours) not the facility’s capacity (expressed as kilowatt, megawatt or gigawatt).  The difference between the capacity of a facility’s generation resource and the amount of electricity it will produce is often confused.  A “1 megawatt” wind turbine has a generation capacity of 1 megawatt.  That means that if the wind blew at full speed for one hour, the facility would produce 1 megawatt-hour of electricity, equal to 1,000 kilowatt-hours.

Rep. Lincoln Davis, the only other member of the Caucus beside the co chairs in attendance, only stayed long enough to ask one question, which awkwardly blended the potential for electricity from renewable sources to independence from foreign sources of oil.  Nevertheless, we appreciate that Rep. Davis called for an approach based on science, technology and common sense.  This begins with pulling the right levers to create market pull for renewable energy resources and quickly deploying the ones that are cost-effective today.

The forum did tout low-impact hydro facilities as one option that could create renewable electricity in the region, and we were glad to see the Free Flow Power Corporation bring this important option to the table.  Rep. Shuler and Senator Alexander also rightfully acknowledged the vast opportunity we have to be more energy efficient.  Senator Alexander called it our “secret weapon.”  We couldn’t agree more, and we hope that they will support an energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) that will save families and businesses in our region $38 billion on energy and meet 36 percent of our nation’s residential energy demand.

Energy efficiency is clearly one resource we must pursue relentlessly, but renewable energy is also an indispensable component of our energy portfolio.  It is unfortunate that Senator Alexander and the TVA Congressional Caucus missed an important opportunity to have a robust discussion about the region’s renewable energy resources.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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