Posts Tagged ‘TVA’

Knoxville Homes Get an Energy Makeover

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

Mayor Rogero and Dorothy Ware on KEEM opening day. Image courtesy of City of Knoxville Office of Sustainability and Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee Housing & Energy

Mayor Rogero and Dorothy Ware on KEEM opening day. Image courtesy of City of Knoxville Office of Sustainability and Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee Housing & Energy

By Maureen Robbs

Cracks around your windows, drooping or nonexistent crawl space insulation, and inefficient appliances could be contributing to your high utility bills. If you are cranking up the heat to stay warm this winter, it may be time to do an energy audit.

A coalition of community groups in Knoxville, Tenn., is taking energy efficiency initiatives to new heights, setting a goal to weatherize 1,278 homes by September 2017.

The $15 million Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover project, initiated in August, is funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority and led by a project team comprised of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, the City of Knoxville, Knoxville Utilities Board and the Alliance to Save Energy.
TVA made the funding available as part of a 2011 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the utility’s violations of the Clean Air Act.

“We have some pretty aggressive goals for climate mitigation: a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020,” says Erin Gill, sustainability director for the City of Knoxville. “The KEEM project stems from Smarter Cities Partnership, which was founded September 2013 and recognizes the persistent challenge of more than 10,000 families who struggle with high utility bills, which are often driven up by aging housing infrastructure.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average value of weatherization improvements is 2.2 times greater than the cost. The KEEM project targets at minimum a 25 percent reduction in energy spending for each home. The allotted upgrade costs are based on the square footage of the home.

A Custom Fit

“It is a custom experience for each house,” says Jennifer Alldredge, an education team program manager at the Alliance to Save Energy. “The auditors thoroughly examine each home and every home receives services specific to that home.”

Weatherization practices are energy efficiency measures intended to help low and middle-income residents improve their homes, reducing long-term energy costs and immediately enhancing in-home comfort.

Energy auditor evaluates a home. Image courtesy of City of Knoxville Office of Sustainability and Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee Housing & Energy

Energy auditor evaluates a home. Image courtesy of City of Knoxville Office of Sustainability and Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee Housing & Energy

To calculate the projected electricity savings of each home, the KEEM project coordinators use a TVA-provided data entry tool. With the homeowner’s or renter’s permission, the KEEM team collects electric bills from participating households so that TVA may measure and verify how projected savings compare to actual savings over time.

Eligible participants must reside in a single-family home or duplex at least 20 years old within the Knoxville city limits and earn a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median. The home must also have electric heat and a water heater. The KEEM program is available to renters with their landlord’s permission.

Jason Estes, director of Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee Housing & Energy Services, confirms that approximately 430 homes have already qualified and 23 audits were completed by the end of October.

Energy Education

Participants must pass a pre-audit and attend a free educational weatherization workshop, but “attendees don’t have to be eligible for KEEM, anyone who is interested can attend the workshops to learn tips and habits for energy efficiency,” says Alldredge, who has run 42 workshops in the first two months of the program.

The KEEM project’s ultimate goal is to benefit local families through education, increased energy efficiency and monthly utility cost reductions.

“The project empowers people through education,” says Chris Woudstra, project coordinator for the KEEM project at the City of Knoxville Office of Sustainability. “I saw a house get weatherized this weekend, and it put into perspective how small actions can have a big impact.”

The initiative also provides jobs for qualified local contractors, who are installing the upgrades once the KEEM auditors approve a participant’s home. Based on TVA’s projections, Gill noted that the KEEM project will help create approximately 120 jobs.

“Our strategy is built for creating opportunities for small contractors, who may have already been doing weatherization projects and can now make this a core component of their business,” says Gill. “They can participate in the green economy in a very real way.”

To learn more about the KEEM project, visit If you are interested in conducting your own personal energy audit, visit

Weatherizing Tennessee homes gets results

Friday, October 2nd, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero (at podium) launches KEEM with homeowner Dorothy Ware (far right), who has already saved 25 percent on her electric bill, with more energy efficiency improvements to come.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero (at podium) launches KEEM with homeowner Dorothy Ware (far right), who has already saved 25 percent on her electric bill, with more energy efficiency improvements to come.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which supplies power to 155 utility companies in the Southeast, has released a second round of grants for energy efficiency makeovers. Cleveland Utilities in Tennessee will be another Appalachian energy-provider receiving millions of dollars to retrofit its customers’ homes. The funding stems from TVA’s settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Act in 2011 for violations of the Clean Air Act.

In September, the Knoxville Utility Board and the Knox County Community Action Committee launched the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover (KEEM) program with $15 million from the first round of TVA grant funding. KEEM will be providing energy efficiency upgrades to 1,200 homes over the next two years in the area.

The program promises to bring a host of benefits to the community. Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently released a summary of findings on the effect of weatherization assistance programs nationwide. According to the summary, “Weatherization provides cost-effective energy savings to American families, provides additional health and safety benefits, supports jobs, and provides a stable platform for additional investment in energy efficiency.”

In 2010 alone, with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, weatherization supported 28,000 jobs nationwide and generated savings for residents amounting to a whopping $1.1 billion. Not only did the influx of capital significantly improve the economy, the nation’s carbon footprint shrunk by 7,382,000 metric tons.

As we reported previously, clean energy jobs in Tennessee are growing at three times the rate of overall job growth in the state. Appalachian Voices is working with utilities, businesses and other nonprofit partners in east Tennessee and western North Carolina to promote job creation and energy savings in Appalachia by establishing programs provide up-front, debt-free funding assistance so residents can enjoy energy-efficiency home improvements sooner, rather than later.

To find out how you can help get your utility on board, contact Amy Kelly today!

>> Get a free self-audit, $10 gift card to Home Depot and energy savings kit through TVA’s Energy Right Solutions program. (Not sure if you’re in TVA’s service territory? Check this map.)

TVA 20-year Plan Heavy on Natural Gas, Nuclear

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced in March that it will not need to build a new power plant for at least 20 years. The utility, which covers all of Tennessee and parts of neighboring states, plans to address future power demand by increasing nuclear power output, retrofitting coal-fired power plants to burn natural gas, and utilizing energy efficiency programs.

While TVA recently funded a nuclear reactor to go online in Tennessee by this December, making it the first public utility to do so in the 21st century, it is abandoning construction on a $6 billion nuclear power plant project in Alabama. The utility is also holding off on plans to build a high-voltage power line that would carry wind power from Texas and Oklahoma.

Energy efficiency at the forefront of cooperative principles in Tennessee

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 - posted by rory
Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA's Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA’s Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Rural electric cooperatives, which serve millions of families across Appalachia, operate on seven principles, the most important of which (at least to us) is principle number seven: “Concern for Community.”

The seventh principle commits electric co-ops to “the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.” As we described in a blog series on the need for and benefits on “on-bill” financing programs supporting home energy improvements in Appalachia, the sustainable development of the Appalachian region relies on the ability of residents to invest in their communities. But first and foremost, they must be able to afford their electric bills. The clear first step to achieving this vision is expanding energy efficiency, and this is something that Tennessee’s electric cooperatives have taken to heart.

On September 5, thanks to a generous grant from the National Governor’s Association (NGA), the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA), in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), sponsored a statewide energy efficiency “retreat.” The goal of the day-long policy retreat was to hash through the details of what will hopefully become a statewide program to finance home energy efficiency improvements, especially for low-income residents. Such programs have proven to reduce home energy costs substantially, and are primarily intended to help families that can’t afford to pay for the upfront cost of needed improvements. Below is a testimonial from one family that participated in South Carolina’s pilot on-bill financing program known as “Help My House.”

The retreat featured a number of experts in energy efficiency finance and program design as well as co-op and government administration, including numerous representatives from federal organizations and government agencies, Tennessee state government agencies and various experts and clean energy advocates such as Appalachian Voices and a handful of our partner organizations.

Most importantly, the retreat was attended by six of Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives. Included among them was Appalachian Electric, which has proven to be a statewide leader in expanding energy efficiency opportunities not only for their own members, but for all of Tennessee’s rural co-op members. Unfortunately, of the six co-ops that participated in the retreat only two co-ops were from the Appalachian region, although we were told by TECA that a handful of others couldn’t attend but were interested in participating in the process. We hope that more co-ops with service territories in East Tennessee will sign on to the process, because as the energy cost maps we generated earlier this year show, members of Appalachian co-ops are most in need of support for reducing their electric bills.

The efforts of Appalachian Voices’ staff, through concerted outreach to Tennessee’s Appalachian electric co-ops and local stakeholders, played a key part in making the energy efficiency retreat happen, and as a result we were invited to participate as an expert stakeholder. We are extremely encouraged by the outstanding leadership that NGA, TECA, TDEC and Appalachian Electric are showing, and we admire their dedication to helping the families who need it most.

The prospect of a statewide on-bill financing program in Tennessee is exciting, and we remain committed to doing everything we can to seeing it through. Further, we appreciate everything you do to support our work. If you live in western North Carolina, get in touch, because we have a lot going on in your neighborhood too!

An Unforgettable Lesson, Forgotten

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

Five Years After the Kingston Coal Ash Spill

By Kimber Ray

UPDATE: Immediately after this issue of The Appalachian Voice went to press, news broke of a coal ash spill at a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment in Eden, N.C. An estimate of approximately 35,000 tons of toxic ash spilled into the Dan River. The U.S. Attorney’s office has launched a federal criminal investigation into the spill and the state’s handling of coal ash. Read the latest on the Front Porch Blog.

The black liner covering the coal ash containment cell, above, will be topped with two feet of soil and grass when the Tennessee site is converted to a park. Photo by Cat McCue.

The black liner covering the coal ash containment cell, above, will be topped with two feet of soil and grass when the Tennessee site is converted to a park. Photo by Cat McCue.

Just after midnight, a thunderous swell of sound peeled apart the silence that had settled onto Harriman, Tenn. A mountain of black coal ash — the waste byproduct of burning coal — descended upon the surrounding neighborhood, snapping trees and ripping three homes from their foundations. The Emory River was choked to a trickle as more than 300 surrounding acres were covered in a toxic sludge.

The 1.1 billion gallons of waste — with a nearly identical cleanup cost — that cascaded from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant on Dec. 22, 2008, marked the largest industrial spill in United States history. When the public took in the sight of 10-foot-high ash piles and dead fish strewn across a hellish scene that morning, no one could have anticipated what would follow.

“Fish Appear Healthy After TVA Coal Ash Spill,” reported a headline in The Chattanoogan nearly two years after the event. That same year, the Tennessee Department of Health released their final public health assessment: no evidence had been found of drinking or groundwater contamination. While the same cannot be concluded for the impoverished Alabama community where much of the coal ash was shipped, TVA ratepayers found that their wallets suffered more enduring damage than the environment.

“I couldn’t believe we weren’t finding more impact,” says Dr. Shea Tuberty, an associate professor of biology at Appalachian State University. For two years after the spill, Tuberty worked with a team of researchers and environmental stewards assessing the ecological impacts of the disaster.

Despite the magnitude of the spill, nature seemed to work to the advantage of the TVA: fresh sediment swept in from the Emory River, covering the ash not removed during the cleanup, and the Emory joined the massive flow of the Clinch and Tennessee rivers, effectively diluting much of what pollution remained.

Analysis of fish tissue did show elevated levels of selenium, arsenic and heavy metals, exposure to which can cause health effects including cancer, autoimmunity and respiratory illness. But on average, Tuberty says, levels seldom exceeded the toxic threshold dose that triggers these harmful effects. After observing levels of heavy metals in fish peak, then drop off to normal averages, the team decided to conclude their research.

The most overwhelming effect on the environment may have been the initial physical impact: the tsunami of ash and loss of habitat. Even weeks after the spill, Tuberty recalls water with the consistency of a milkshake, and fish with coal-black gills and stomachs full of ash.

But the TVA denied that fish had died. “They were picking up trash bags full of dead fish while they were slurping off all the coal ash,” Tuberty remarks. “That level of dishonesty was completely unnecessary.”

Aside from this, Tuberty says, the TVA also took some samples upstream from the site of the spill and — due to a mistake in their analysis — reported lower levels of heavy metals in fish than many outside studies. Given the diluting power of the rivers combined with sustained cleanup efforts, it seemed the TVA was scrambling to hide an environmental fallout that never came to pass.

The Tennessee Valley Authority purchased 180 surrounding properties after the catastrophic landslide of coal ash in Harriman, Tenn. Photo credit: Appalachian Voices.

The Tennessee Valley Authority purchased 180 surrounding properties after the catastrophic landslide of coal ash in Harriman, Tenn. Photo credit: Appalachian Voices.

But while the efficiency of the remediation was unexpected, the spill itself was not. The holding cell for the coal ash was never built right. Sitting on a tenuous water foundation, its 60-foot-high walls were made of recycled coal ash sediment and lacked any reinforcing steel or concrete. Residents had reported seeing workers fix leaks in the wall several times in the decade leading up to the spill.

According to a report filed by TVA Inspector General Richard Moore in 2009, engineering consultants had warned the utility in 1985, and again in 2004, that the wall might fail. Yet due to a lack of state or federal regulations regarding coal ash — an absence that still exists today — the TVA was able to exercise their liberty to ignore these predictions.

Costs in the aftermath of the spill have been enormous — both economically and psychologically. Many residents chose to build their lives by the Kingston plant because of the area’s natural beauty. The adjacent reservoir was a popular birding area where you could see “huge populations of great blue herons and ospreys like pterodactyls landing on the trees in the spring,” recalls Tuberty. But for most residents, the damage and lingering fears of contamination were too great to allow them to remain in the homes they had grown to love.

The current price tag of remediation efforts has already exceeded $1 billion and, according to a TVA budget report released last fall, could rise to as much as $2 billion. These costs encompass site repair and cleanup, compensation to property owners and converting TVA’s other high-risk wet-storage facilities — where coal ash is mixed with water and stored in massive ponds — to safer dry-storage landfills that cannot break out in a catastrophic flood.

Ratepayers will shoulder most of this financial burden. Beginning in October 2009, more than nine million residents throughout TVA’s service territory experienced a rate increase of 69 cents per month. In order to foot the bill, this will continue through 2024.

Damage Displaced to Alabama

The cost of the spill was not limited to the Tennessee Valley. More than 300 miles away in Perry County, Ala., the social and environmental burden of more than four million tons of the 5.4 million-ton spill is borne by residents living in the small, rural community of Uniontown. Between 2009 and 2010, hundreds of trainloads of dry coal ash were shipped here — the heart of Alabama’s “Black Belt” — where more than 75 percent of residents are African American and nearly half live in poverty.

According to a study conducted in North Carolina, landfills are 2.8 times more likely to be sited in areas where the minority population exceeds 50 percent. This is a phenomenon known as “environmental racism,” and Dr. Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and a founding voice for the environmental justice movement, believes this was at play when the Kingston coal ash was relocated from a predominantly white to a predominately black community.

Bullard adds that shipping the coal ash to Uniontown was only an extension of the initial injustice: the opening of the landfill in 2007 despite widespread opposition from the community. In both instances, residential concerns were ignored by elected officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

When the coal ash came, Bullard says, “Newspapers reported that the landfill was in an isolated location, there was no community opposition, and it would bring economic development.” A public hearing for residents to voice their concerns was held only after the permit for the landfill had already been signed. As for economic development, it was a hollow promise from the start. Jobs that arrived to help unload the coal ash are long gone — disappearing with the last train’s shipment.

Although there have have been no published studies on the human and environmental impact of the coal ash in Uniontown, the effect is palpable. The coal ash here was not subject to the same level of precaution as the remaining coal ash stored at Kingston; mounds of dry ash are visible above the tree line, lacking a protective cover to prevent dust from blowing into the neighborhood. It rises from the landfill to coat the cars and clotheslines of nearby residents.

“Landfills don’t make good neighbors,” Bullard says. “Before the landfill came, this land was basically farms, cattle fields and trees. People enjoyed working outside, but [now] you can smell the landfill. It’s destroyed their life, and it might destroy the land and their livelihood. And they’ve been powerless to stop it.”

With the help of attorney David Ludder, as well as attorneys from the environmental law firm Earthjustice, residents of Uniontown have filed a discrimination complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights. The office agreed to investigate the complaint this past July, but since then there has been no significant action.

This lack of action has been true for much of the national debate as well. The now-notorious Kingston coal ash spill shined a harsh spotlight on the absence of federal coal ash standards. It was not until October 2013 when a federal judge sided with environmental groups — including Appalachian Voices — that the EPA was ordered to comply with a congressional mandate to establish coal ash regulations. On Jan. 29, 2014, the EPA announced that these regulations will be published by Dec. 19, 2014. The strength of these forthcoming rules remains uncertain.

At the Kingston plant, the TVA is just a year away from bringing their site remediation efforts to a close. TVA Spokesman Scott Brooks says the disaster site will be converted to a park, with ballfields and a green space. “We’re going to leave the area around the spill as an asset to the community,” he adds.

Yet it would be no surprise if residents are not inclined to offer thanks for this “asset.” Much of the enormous cost for the Kingston coal ash spill has been passed off to the community. And with the debate about how to handle coal ash still unresolved, Kingston is at risk of becoming nothing more than a notation in an ongoing timeline of preventable accidents.

Tennessee Valley Authority Announces Major Coal Cutbacks

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Brian Sewell
TVA coal cutbacks

After more than 50 years of supplying most of its power plants with coal, the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it will idle 3,308 megawatts of capacity at eight coal units in Kentucky and Alabama — approximately half of its coal-based generation.

Citing market factors, declining demand and stricter environmental rules, board members of TVA — the nation’s largest public power provider — said the cutbacks will move the utility closer to its long-term goal of relying on coal for just 20 percent of its overall generation. Under TVA’s plan, nuclear power will overtake coal-based generation and account for 40 percent of the utility’s capacity.

While the announcement came as no surprise to observers familiar with TVA’s plans for the future, the timing of the decision did. The 20-year plan TVA released in 2011 included the idling of up to 4,700 megawatts of coal capacity by 2017. But in late October, the utility updated its plan in “response to major changes in electrical utility industry trends,” providing signs it planned to expedite a shift away from coal.

“These were difficult recommendations to make as they directly impact our employees and communities,” TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson told reporters. “But the plan is what’s best in terms of its positive impact on TVA’s rates, debt and the environment; and it will bring the greatest benefit to the people of the Valley.”

Units planned for retirement include two of the three at the 50-year-old Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. Despite making significant investments to upgrade the plant’s pollution controls in 2012, the TVA board said it is not in its ratepayers’ best interest to keep the units running.

Those units will be replaced by a $1 billion natural gas plant, which TVA said will cost less than installing controls at the aging coal plants to meet new and proposed air quality standards, and will also add construction-related jobs.

According to Joe Ritch, a TVA board member from Huntsville, Ala., saving a few jobs now by investing billions to keep the plants open would reduce TVA’s competitiveness for years to come. “As painful as it is, it’s the right thing to do,” said Ritch.

Energy Efficiency Programs Survive the Government Shutdown

Thursday, October 10th, 2013 - posted by rory
Despite the government shutdown, energy efficiency programs offered by federally-owned TVA and its partner utilities are helping businesses across the Southeast.

Despite the government shutdown, energy efficiency programs offered by federally-owned TVA and its partner utilities are helping businesses across the Southeast grow and thrive.

Although TVA is a government-owned electric utility, the ongoing government shutdown has not affected its operations. As a result, businesses across the Southeast are able to continue saving money and energy thanks to TVA’s Energy Right Solutions for Industry program.

For instance, on Oct. 8, TVA representatives and Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant handed a $2 million check to steelmaker Severstal Columbus as a reward for reducing its energy consumption by nearly 26 million kilowatt-hours — approximately half of the plant’s total energy consumption — through investments in equipment upgrades.

“When we can offset building new buildings with energy efficiency, everyone wins because our fuel and purchase power goes down for all consumers in the valley,” TVA’s Energy Efficiency Director Cindy Herron said, describing the benefits of such investments. “This upgrade will help lower production costs and help Severstal stay competitive, in turn, helping the entire community.”

Tenn Tuesday: SEJ, CAPP Coal Decline, Record Hydro!

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013 - posted by jw

Now, with even *more* Chattanooga!

Happy Tuesday! A whole mess of Appalachian Voices’ staff spent most of last week and the weekend at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in one of the greatest cities in America — Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Scenic City, has the world’s fastest internet, the first LEED-Platinum certified factory at the award-winning Volkswagen plant, an aggressive energy efficiency plan for metro facilities and ranks as one of Outside Magazine’s “ best places to live.”

We’re the only city with our own crowd-sourced typeface, home of the world’s second longest pedestrian bridge, two great aquariums, a zoo, some fantastic art museums, great restaurants, and pretty soon, a downtown trampoline park.

This weekend, Chattanooga concurrently hosted the SEJ conference, the excellent Three Sisters Bluegrass festival, and the “River Rocks” festival. You can catch the block party finale on October 12. Did I mention I watched Michael Jordan play baseball against the Chattanooga Lookouts at historic Engel Stadium? Anyway, the point is that Chattanooga is incredible, and we were honored to play such an integral role in the conference.

Almost Always Sunny in Appalachia

Friday, August 23rd, 2013 - posted by molly

Whether through a power plant or from the home, solar energy’s future is bright

By Matt Grimley

The demand for solar is not always where it is the sunniest. According to a 2009 Appalachian Regional Commission energy report, solar insolation (or the hours per day of sunlight) in Los Angeles, Calif., is 5.62 kWh/m2/day during peak output; it is 2.63 kWh/m2/day in Hamburg, Germany. “This clearly suggests that Germany’s current leadership in cumulative solar installations is less related to insolation than it is to [government] subsidies,” says the report. Map from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The demand for solar is not always where it is the sunniest. According to a 2009 Appalachian Regional Commission energy report, solar insolation (or the hours per day of sunlight) in Los Angeles, Calif., is 5.62 kWh/m2/day during peak output; it is 2.63 kWh/m2/day in Hamburg, Germany. “This clearly suggests that Germany’s current leadership in cumulative solar installations is less related to insolation than it is to [government] subsidies,” says the report. Map from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

In a meeting earlier this year with U.S. Department of Energy employees, the secretary of energy was blunt about solar power.

“I would argue that the scale and time frame of the impact of solar technology is underestimated,” Ernest Moniz said. “There are many situations today when solar is, in fact, competitive.”

Solar is the fastest-growing new energy source in the United States. In the first quarter of 2013, the nation installed 723 megawatts of it, up 33 percent over the first quarter in 2012. Solar saw a .14 percent share of national energy production in all of 2012, and analysts are predicting that more than 4 gigawatts will be installed in 2013.

In California, due to a continued drop in component prices and helpful state policies, solar is more than competitive. It is close to reaching grid parity, where installing solar power is less expensive than buying electricity from the energy grid, and many analysts believe the rest of the states will follow within a decade.

But solar’s long-lasting success in the mountains will depend on more than just sunlight.

No Turning Back

Large electric utilities are prone to seek out solar energy only if there is a requirement or obligation to move past currently cheaper fossil fuels. Power from the sun only becomes accessible, at least in the monopolistic markets of Appalachia, through political and economic fights.

The Turning Point Solar project in Ohio has probably seen enough fighting for now.

The solar farm — set to be placed on 750 acres of reclaimed strip mine land in southeastern Ohio — was ready to start at the beginning of this year. And with a brand-new factory that had already won awards, Isofoton North America was ready to manufacture about 250,000 panels for the project, which American Electric Power Ohio planned to use to meet Ohio’s 2025 renewable energy standard.

But then, on Jan. 9, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio voted on AEP Ohio’s plan to pass the $180 million cost of the solar farm to their electric consumers. Turning Point, which would have created about 700 jobs and been the largest solar project east of the Rockies, was voted down 3-1.

Akron-based FirstEnergy — a competitor to AEP Ohio who has opposed the state renewable energy and energy efficiency standards — was against the project from the beginning. It argued the solar farm would over-comply with the state’s current solar mandate, and the commission ended up agreeing, saying the project would not benefit ratepayers and the public interest.

However, the board did praise the merits of Turning Point, and state utilities commission staff had said previously that the project was needed, which was part of the reason why Michael Peck, chairman of Isofoton North America, was so surprised at the ruling. The project partners had laid the groundwork for the project for four years, but it wasn’t enough.

“To me, there’s a basic lack of understanding of renewable energy,” he says of Turning Point’s quandary. “There’s not a real commitment to job creation.”

Months after the decision, the Isofoton factory is still scrounging for customers, but the company is digging its heels in, taking the advice from the state utilities commission that it try to find new customers such as universities to sign long-term power purchase agreements for Turning Point’s solar power.

“We have to try, as much as we can, to keep politics out of Turning Point Solar,” Peck says. “We’re trying to create the new economy and we put our money where our mouth is.”

The Entry Point

In central and southern Appalachia, Duke Energy has been the biggest solar backer among utilities. With encouragement from North Carolina tax credits and a renewable energy standard, Duke Energy Progress saw nearly 70 megawatts of solar added in 2012, the eighth-most in the nation among utilities, according to the Solar Electric Power Association.

That same year, utilities nationwide accounted for 53 percent of all new solar installations, up from 32 percent in 2010, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. Centralized projects, such as solar farms, are the biggest reason for that increase in utilities, and those that are built and owned by third-party developers made up 93 percent of utility solar installations last year.

Utilities, at least in places such as California and North Carolina, are using solar developers to great benefit. In Tennessee, however, there is no renewable energy standard, and some public interest groups — such as the nonprofit Statewide Organzing for Community eMpowerment — feel that the Tennessee Valley Authority is constraining the solar market by limiting its Green Power Providers program’s yearly generation goal at 10 megawatts.

TVA’s Green Power program is designed for third party developers who work with residential rooftops and smaller solar installations. Every year, TVA accepts applications for developing that solar capacity, and this year its offerings were quickly claimed by the growing demand from small solar businesses. As a result, the solar market for small developers in Tennessee was effectively closed for the year by May. An additional 2.5 megawatts, offered in August, was claimed in a single day. Steve Johnson of the solar contractor LightWave Solar said in The Tennessean that “TVA’s solar programs should never close. TVA should never deny the market access to the grid.”

TVA’s solar program was notable last decade because it helped to spur Tennessee into the 14th-ranked solar job state in the nation. And though the public utility announced it is working with Strata Solar to develop two 20-megawatt solar farms, it still controls access to the energy grid for solar developers and homeowners, — and the states where the grid is controlled by a few are often the toughest for a developing industry.

The Numbers

Andy Arnette, a professor of decision science at the University of Wyoming, has an estimate of how far solar can go in central Appalachia.

Using a model that adjusts for land uses, costs and emission reductions, he’s estimated that between the mountainous parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, utility-scale solar farms could replace 3.33 percent of current coal-fired generation in the region. Energy from coal is estimated to produce more than 80 percent of the region’s power, compared to 37 percent nationally in 2012.

Part of the trouble with building centralized solar farms in Appalachia is geography, he says, meaning that expensive changes to the energy grid and additional transmission are needed to properly support optimal solar farm capacity.

According to Arnette, current infrastructure could better support distributed solar (see story on p. 10), which is often produced on rooftops, or at or near the point where it is used. Such rooftop arrangements could presently replace more than 12 percent of current coal-fired generation in the region, if there are some changes up-top.

“There needs to be a better relationship between the utility companies or third parties and homeowners,” Arnette says, “because not everybody can afford to put this [solar installation] on their building.

Policies favoring net metering, when customers are credited on their energy bill for any excess energy that is generated on their site and third-party developers can help install solar on more homes, could remove the heavy upfront costs. Current state legislation throughout Appalachia, however, doesn’t help consumer becomes energy-independent, says Arnette, and the power companies don’t have the motivation to help those policies.

But the upshot, says Arnette, is that “solar jobs are really wherever the sun shines.” According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, each megawatt of solar power generates as many as eight jobs and $240,000 in economic activity, and sun-powered projects are typically larger boons for local economies than fossil fuel sources. The national solar energy workforce, which entails everything from manufacturing to development, has grown almost nine times the national employment rate since 2010.

While North Carolina holds the solar standard in Appalachia, there are bright spots all around the region: A jail in southwest Virginia recently unveiled the state’s largest rooftop solar thermal installation, which is expected to save them up to $40,000 a year; The Wall Street Journal recently featured Rep. Thomas Massie’s solar-powered Kentucky home; the Duck River Electric Membership Cooperative in Tennessee became the first distributor in the TVA system to construct a solar farm for its members; and Georgia Power was just ordered by the state’s Public Service Commission to add 525 additional megawatts to their 210-megawatt solar production plan.

Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, the commissioner who first proposed the solar requirement on Georgia Power, insisted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the ruling that the move was a hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices.

“I don’t know what gas prices will be in six years. But I know the sun will come up, and it’s free. It’s not owned by Georgia Power, it’s not owned by Bubba McDonald, it’s not owned by the Public Service Commission,” McDonald said. “It’s free. And to deprive people of the opportunity to take advantage of technology, to me, is wrong.”

Tenn. Tuesday – A Bright Day, Welcoming The Newest Tennessean

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013 - posted by brian
Appalachian Voices Tenn. Director welcomed his second daughter this week, and we added our name to the long list supporting the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

Appalachian Voices Tenn. Director welcomed his second daughter – the newest Tennessean – to the world this week, and we’re proud to join the long list supporting the Tennessee Wilderness Act.

Appalachian Voices’ resident Tennessean, and a proud one at that, is celebrating the birth of his second daughter, who for at least a little while yesterday morning was the newest resident of the great state of Tennessee. Congratulations JW, Elizabeth and Emma, we know Isla James will be as proud of her home as y’all are.

Staying with that wonderful news, Appalachian Voices has joined a long list of businesses and organizations supporting Tennessee Wild, a group dedicated to protecting the Cherokee National Forest for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. The group is also a leading force in efforts to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act, which would designate 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest as wilderness, the highest form of protection on public lands, including the first new wilderness area in the Volunteer State in more than two decades. In July, the bill was introduced for a third time by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee.