Our opinion: TVA must approve more solar capacity

Published July 8, 2013

Steve Johnson, founder of LightWave Solar, says TVA's restraints on the solar power market are hindering private investment in the region. / Jae S. Lee / File / The Tennessean


Written by Steve Johnson for the Tennessean on July 7, 2013


Solar energy is a popular technology in Tennessee, having experienced rapid growth in the past.

Although the Tennessee Valley Authority has played a critical role in building the solar market in Tennessee, the effects of its actions this year have begun to send the market rapidly backward, with the closure of the TVA’s solar programs two months ago. In an industry that grew 76 percent across the United States last year, that’s a severe misstep.

The current structure of the Green Power Providers and Solar Solutions Initiative poses a significant and unnecessary threat to Tennessee’s solar industry. TVA has placed severe restraints on the market by limiting individual system sizes as well as limiting the program caps. These market constraints hinder private investment in the region. Remember, these solar plants are paid for by private businesses and individuals, not TVA. This creates jobs in the valley and brings many benefits to TVA, businesses and ratepayers.

The value of solar hasn’t been explained well in Tennessee. Because of the nature of this type of electricity, it brings many valuable contributions to the grid. Solar has been proved to apply downward pressure on rates in other markets. Benefits of no fuel expense, no fuel risk, and the conservation of transmission and distribution resources provided by distributed generation are valuable financial contributions to the grid and ratepayers.

The “fuel charge” you see on your bill wasn’t put there by solar; solar has no fuel charge. Solar has no cost for transportation of fuel, and solar hedges against commodity risk in fuel speculation and inflation. Solar customers are subsidizing other technologies that incur fuel charges every minute of every day. “Distributed generation” is the new direction in utility distribution — like mainframes to desktops, and land­lines to smartphones, it just makes too much sense not to happen. Other energy sources have created the burdensome debt load at TVA — not solar. Solar brings value to all.

Solar businesses depend on TVA’s ability to adjust to the market. And right now, TVA is not doing that. The market is underserved, and growth has stopped. Consumers are demanding more solar energy than TVA is willing to supply. The closure of TVA’s solar programs means there has been no process available to connect systems to the grid for two months now, and this is causing job loss in the industry.

TVA’s solar programs should never close. TVA should never deny the market access to the grid. There is a market-based approach to solar energy development that will work for TVA and the solar industry, and we look forward to collaborating with TVA to find the right balance.

We ask that TVA work with us to create a plan that will serve the market, benefiting residents throughout the valley with lower rates, less risk, more jobs and clean distributed generation. It is critical that the TVA board approve an additional 2.5 megawatts capacity for Green Power Providers on Oct. 1. This will allow the industry to withstand the three-month closure while planning with TVA for the future.

Steve Johnson is vice president of TenneSEIA and founder of LightWave Solar, a solar contractor based in Nashville. LightWave Solar employs 40 people with offices in Nashville, Memphis and Johnson City.