Cook: Why are other southern states installing more solar than Tennessee?

Tuesday evening, on the hottest day of the year, the parking lot thermometer read 102 degrees in St. Elmo.

Inside the West 40th Street rec center, a group of 30, maybe 40, had gathered to discuss, of all things, energy.

"What do we know about our energy system?" the facilitator asked.

It was the fifth stop on a southern city tour for Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy, a coalition of 20 or so diverse environmental, faith and conservationist groups — such as Interfaith Power and Light, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices.

To look at the past, present and future of energy in our region.

To examine the role of the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA.

To promote a democratic, sustainable vision of energy in the future.

Because our energy today and tomorrow is not democratic.

Let's go back to the facilitator's opening question: when you turn on the lights, how do you get power?

It was a smart, engaged crowd. One woman carried an "Eat Like You Give a Damn" water bottle. There were veteran environmentalists. Zero Waster's. Retired educators and community leaders. One woman wore a "I am a Green Anglican" T-shirt. To my left, an early champion of electric car use in Chattanooga. To my right, Sandy Kurtz, a local stalwart environmental leader.

I leaned over and nudged her: what's the percentage of coal to nuclear to hydro?

According to Kurtz — TVA documents support this — we get our power from the following approximate menu:

"Anyone know the total percentage of renewables" beyond hydro, the facilitator asked.

Solar and wind only account for three percent of TVA power.

Cross state lines and things change. North Carolina generates enough solar energy to power 660,000 homes, making it the second-best solar-producing state, only behind California, according to a recent report from Solar Energy Industries Association.

Florida powers 380,000 homes from solar power, making it fifth out of all 50 states. Texas, at sixth, solar powers 352,000 homes.

Georgia is near the top 10. South Carolina's not far behind.

But Tennessee? According to a 2017 report, we rank 25th. (Alabama beats us in football and solar power generation).

TVA just released its Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP, which gives an energy road map for the coming years.

"There's no urgency," one woman in the St. Elmo crowd said. "The IRP does not show concern for the climate crisis we are facing. Nowhere in the whole plan is there any urgency about moving to less carbon."

By 2027, TVA expects to generate power mostly the same ways it does today: nuclear followed by coal, then natural gas and hydro.

Yet, TVA plans to only generate five percent of its power from solar and wind.

Despite other regions — Hawaii's got a plan to be carbon-free, as does New York City — responding with critical awareness.

"Florida Power & Light (FPL) has a system very similar in size to TVA and plans to install over 10 GW of solar over the next ten years. That's right, FPL is adding more solar in 10 years than TVA is likely to add in 20," writes Maggie Shober, director of Power Market Analytics for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, or SACE.

"How can Tennessee be so far behind states like Florida, who installed more solar in one quarter this year (860 MW) than TVA claims it is capable of building in any single year between now and 2038 (500 MW)?" asks Shober.

As a public power company, shouldn't TVA listen to its customers?

TVA — its board votes on the IRP on Thursday, Aug. 22 — called for public input for its long-term plan. Some 1,200 responses came.

"Only 3 out of the 1,200 total were for continued operation of fossil fuel power plants," writes Shober.

St. Elmo folks described an "insular" culture: board meetings closed, committee meetings off-limits, listening sessions where citizens are only given brief attention.

"You call it public power but they do what they want," said one woman.

A public power company is democratically owned by the people. You. Me. Us.

Therefore, TVA should be a leader — environmental and democratic — among southern states.

"Change only comes through crisis," one friend said days after the meeting.

The climate is changing, and unless we respond with urgent intention, more and more crises will emerge.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at [email protected]

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