Worst Solar Year Since 2011? TVA on Track for an Embarrassing Record Low

This blog was written by Alissa Schafer, former Solar Policy & Communications Manager at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | June 25, 2018 | Solar, Tennessee

Here we are, just about half way through the year. School is out for the summer, 4th of July picnic plans are in full swing, and the days are long and sunny. Many power companies throughout the Southeast are taking advantage of that sunshine with ever-growing solar portfolios, as we reported in our Solar in the Southeast Report earlier this year. The Tennessee Valley Authority, however, is failing miserably. SACE, along with other members of the Tennesseans for Solar Choice coalition, hosted a press conference last Thursday, Summer Solstice 2018 to raise the alarm on TVA’s continued lack of solar progress and broken solar programs. [Audio of the full press conference, including a question and answer portion at the end, can be found HERE]

As TVA forges ahead on a path to the worst solar year since 2011, the poor performance seems to be a deliberate mismanagement and slowing of TVA’s own solar programs. TVA has three programs for solar: Green Power Providers (GPP) for residential and small businesses, Distributed Solar Solutions (DSS) for larger community scale solar in partnership with Local Power Companies, and large scale solar through a Request For Proposals (RFP) process.

The Tennesseans for Solar Choice coalition is questioning TVA’s commitment to their own programs. Despite being halfway through the year, recent data from GTM Research show less than 2 megawatts (MW) of solar were installed in the first quarter, and year-to-date applications for residential and small business solar are down 73 percent from where they were a year ago. RFP contracts were expected to be awarded in the first quarter 2018, but this has not yet happened. Despite some hopeful hints at progress, such as the recent announcement that TVA is working with Facebook in Huntsville, AL, it appears that TVA has been using their monopoly power to choke off the pipeline for future solar projects, with one of the most dramatic examples being that, halfway through the year, the Distributed Solar Solutions program for 2018 has yet to be announced.

Tennesseans for Solar Choice shared frustrations over the current, lagging status of solar throughout TVA’s territory, emphasizing that it is time for other solar options. As TVA continues to reduce the rate they pay for self-generation, going below the amount that customers pay on their electric bill for the first time since TVA started their solar program in 2003, opportunities exist for residents and businesses to design their solar generation “behind the meter” to ensure they capture the full retail value. However, new fees and in-cohesive policies are slowing down this process as well. Moreover, the coalition called for TVA to provide “contract flexibility” allowing Local Power Companies to offer solar programs that align with their customers’ preferences.

While hesitant to share publicly out of fear of retaliation from TVA, many solar contractors throughout the region have experienced the frustrations of their customers who want to go solar but are confronted with red-tape, inconsistent policies and fees, and incredible delays in application approval. Some customers have even been contacted by TVA employees directly, who worked to dissuade them from going solar. As TVA continues to actively discourage people from going solar, local solar companies are forced into uncertainty as their business models based on TVA’s own solar programs fall short.

Gil Hough, Executive Director of TenneSEIA which represents the solar industry in the state of Tennessee, stated: “This has been a very hard year for many small business in the Tennessee Valley due to recent changes by TVA, these programs are broken, and getting worse instead of better. Customers need transparent, cohesive, well-designed programs, and TVA’s Local Power Companies need contract flexibility. A bad solar program means that more and more customers are installing “behind the meter” and not working with their utility as a direct result of frustration over TVA’s actions. Customers are looking elsewhere for their clean energy, creating a huge missed opportunity for TVA and local power companies.”

In addition to ensuring “full retail value”, those who install solar behind the meter, can actually claim to be “using” renewable energy. Thanks to a somewhat tricky technicality, GPP customers cannot. When customers sell power to TVA under the GPP program, they are also giving them the associated environmental attributes, and they (TVA) can actually sell them to other customers. So those customers, rather than the ones who invested and generated the solar power, are the ones who can make the claims about being powered by renewable energy or reducing their carbon footprint. TVA explains this themselves HERE.

The Tennessee Small Business Alliance, a group focused on elevating the voices of small businesses as the employers of over 1.1 million throughout Tennessee also spoke out against TVA’s poor solar performance. “As a small business owner, going solar is a business decision for me, in addition to its environmental and local economic benefits. TVA has consistently been moving in the wrong direction on their solar programs, adding more fees, and lowering the credit I can receive for the power I generate and send back to their grid,” said Chris Calhoun, owner of The Tap House and The Brew Market in Chattanooga. “It is clear to me that if I want to go solar, going behind the meter may well be the only option that makes financial sense for me, but TVA is even making that less attractive by adding mandatory fees that have nothing to do with our energy usage. This type of rate and program design is incredibly regressive and does not provide a welcoming environment for innovative small businesses throughout the Valley.”

The Tennesseans for Solar Choice coalition also included the Tennessee State Conference NAACP, expressing frustration over the lack of positive solar progress. “Solar choice is about taking the power back from monopolies who make decisions behind closed doors and returning that power to the people,” said Elder Jimmie Garland, Vice President Middle TN for the TN State Conference NAACP. “It is crucial that we support fair access to clean, affordable, healthy solar energy, and that we oppose discriminatory fixed charges that hurt people across the Valley.”

Dr. Stephen A. Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy stated: “We are disappointed by TVA’s dysfunctional solar programs that result in missed opportunities for the regional economy, job growth, and environment. Neighboring states are becoming national leaders in solar development and reaping these benefits while Tennessee is falling behind. TVA’s failure to embrace technology innovation and what customers clearly want more of threatens to undermine its future in the 21st century.”

You can read more about Tennesseans for Solar Choice and join their email list to stay informed HERE. It is clear that this will be an ongoing struggle to ensure that families and small businesses throughout the Valley will have access to clean, affordable solar energy.

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