Letter: TVA’s New Tone On Solar Value Is Welcome But Too Late For Many


Thanks for your story on the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) solar policies. As you mention, it highlights what we solar folks in Tennessee have been saying for the last couple of years. Permit me to share my version with you.

As you may know, the TVA had a ground-breaking pilot program for 10 years, ultimately offering $0.12/kWh above retail for all solar production, not excess above consumption. Along with some short-lived state incentives, the TVA fostered early growth of the solar industry here.

I was one of the beneficiaries as an original employee and first crew leader of the first full-time installation company in 2007. In 2010, I created an installer training program at a state vocational school to fill a need we all assumed would develop. In 2011, I formed an installation company of my own.

A primary goal was to put graduates of the solar training program to work, all of them being part of the unemployment problem in our rural areas and most of them military veterans. Our young-but-growing solar industry seemed to be headed for a sound future.

In 2012 – effective 2013, really – the TVA replaced its long-running pilot program with a permanent program, saying they were putting lessons learned from the pilot program into effect. The changes were the lower kilowatt-hour subsidy and the capacity limits your article refers to.

The 2013 capacity limit was reached in April. I said at a TVA board meeting in March that their caps would put me out of business. By fall, that happened. Instead of being an employer and installer, I became a consultant and operations and maintenance provider for a larger solar investment company with no actual solar expertise.

This year we moved to Belize, speeding up our semi-retirement plans by several years – I'm still in solar, just not in Tennessee.

The fate of solar in Tennessee did not depend on my little company, but that's not the point. A considerable amount of the TVA cap was eaten up by speculators with no consumption to offset rather than the ratepayers the distributed generation program was intended for, thanks to the TVA's lack of foresight. Meanwhile, renewable energy jobs were outsourced to wind farms in Iowa.

And, by the way, the TVA's own Buffalo Mountain wind farm was inoperable in large part during its early years, if not still. Also, the TVA hired me to inspect two of their aged solar sites, which were badly designed and operating at half-capacity for two years with dead inverters and burned-out panels but no attention to maintenance.

So the TVA's original focus on economic development was not part of its solar program, and their management of their own renewable energy systems was negligent.

The solar farms that are being installed there are mostly done by companies outside the TVA service area, often by construction companies with no solar background. Developers of the first solar farm bragged that they hired local workers from a temp agency, while graduates of the solar training program a half-hour away were going unemployed.

The business model for my company may have been flawed, but the TVA's solar program was the bigger problem. I tried to talk to them about it but got nothing but lip service and deaf ears.

I welcome the TVA's new message about solar's role and value. I'm sure lobbying from TenneSEIA, the Sierra Club, the Tennessee Environmental Council and others has helped. But for me and Sundog Solar Energy, it's way too late.

Gary Wolf is owner of Sundog Solar Belize. He can be reached by email at garywolf@sundogsolarenergy.com.

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