The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was once a symbol of progress. In the 1930s when it was created as a government-sponsored corporation, TVA brought flood control, modernization and electricity to poor rural communities in the Tennessee Valley.
Today TVA is more a symbol of the reluctance with which large monopoly utilities in the United States are adapting to changing energy markets, particularly the rise of renewable energy.
Despite this general intransigence, last Friday developer NextEra Energy Resources put online the largest solar plant in Alabama and in TVA’s service area, the River Bend Solar Energy Center in Florence, Alabama. River Bend features more than 300,000 PV modules on single-axis trackers, with a capacity of 75 MW. The project holds a 20-year power contract with TVA.
Blattner Energy served as the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor for the River Bend project.
Despite this accomplishment, TVA’s moves towards solar are both tepid and unclear. According to its latest Integrated Resource Plan, TVA plans to add between 150 and 800 MW of utility-scale solar by 2023, stating that “the trajectory and timing of solar additions will be highly dependent upon pricing, performance and integration costs”.
And while TVA expects wind and solar to reach 3% of its power output in fiscal year 2017 – roughly half the percentage in the overall U.S. power mix – in a recent presentation it stated that it does not expect this portion to change by 2026.
Part of the reason may be TVA’s deep ties with nuclear power. On October 16 TVA put online unit 2 of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, which provides an additional 1.2 GW of power as the first nuclear unit to come online in the United States in the 21st century. This comes at time when many legacy nuclear power plants are shutting down and nuclear power remains highly unpopular due to both its high costs and the health and safety concerns of residents living near proposed nuclear power plants.
TVA has also submitted applications to build small modular reactors (SMRs) at its site in Clinch Bend, Tennessee. These could be the first SMRs in the nation if built; however given the lack of dedicated factories to produce components and the nuclear industry’s history of failing to deliver on timelines for both commercialization of new technologies and project construction, it is unclear if and when this will happen.