TVA should conduct fair, open analysis of solar power’s value
Stephen A. Smith | The Tennessean | August 4, 2013
Here’s an astounding fact: Each hour, Earth receives enough solar energy to meet all human energy needs for a year. The challenge is how to economically tap this vast resource.
The good news is that we are getting better at harnessing solar energy in increasingly cost-effective ways. Solar is one of the fastest-growing energy resources in the country, growing 600 percent since early 2010, with average prices dropping 24 percent in the past year alone. Just like with computer semiconductors, as production increases, prices continue to fall, placing solar power “in the money” in more markets across the world.
Closer to home, TVA and its local power distributors have built a reliable electric system based on large, centralized power plants that primarily burn coal or natural gas or are nuclear- powered. As a consequence, our air, land and water have suffered over the years, even as the sun continues to rise in the east — reminding us of another way. We stand at a fork in the road in terms of how we produce and consume energy. Do we continue to burn all the resources we can pull from the earth, or do we unleash our innovative minds to capture the energy that illuminates our days and will brighten our future? These are real choices and decisions being made today.
Demand for solar power in our region is strong, but last year TVA staff placed an arbitrary cap on solar growth. For the first time in years, less solar will be connected to TVA’s grid than the year before, not because people and businesses didn’t want it, but because bureaucratic staff blocked it for budgetary reasons. And yet TVA staff and local power distributors cannot accurately say what the true value of solar power is for the grid. This is because our electrical system was designed around big, centralized power plants that generate large amounts of power, which is pushed across the region on giant transmission lines. This system is already being confronted by a budding solar power democracy, as homes and businesses mount small solar-power systems on their roofs. It’s time for TVA to perform a thorough analysis of the value of solar and credit consumers for its value to the grid.
What is solar power worth to the system? Sunlight is free, a fuel without cost. The capital costs for the system are typically covered by the customer-generator or solar company rather than the utility, and the power is generated on-site, reducing the need for transmission lines, substations and wires. Solar also is cleaner, so there are no air-pollution “scrubbers” to install or radioactive waste to manage.
If you add all of the benefits of solar together, what is solar worth? The truth is we don’t know yet, because the old-school utility bureaucrats spend more time focused on what solar doesn’t do at night than on all the good things it does during the day. The utilities that have done such an analysis, such as Austin Energy based in Texas, demonstrate that solar power is worth more than previously thought, making solar power a better value to our electrical system.
This month, TVA’s board of directors will determine TVA’s budget for 2014. Buried deep in this $11 billion budget — below $1 billion to burn more coal at Gallatin and multiple billions for cost overruns at the Watts Bar nuclear plant — is a line item on solar power. Directing staff to continue to grow TVA’s solar program and undertake a fair and open analysis of the value of solar to the TVA grid can be done within a tiny fraction of the budget. It’s time for this analysis to take place. The benefits of choosing the clean path are abundant, as are the costs of business as usual.
Stephen A. Smith is executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.