While the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has been retiring old coal plants or investing in expensive pollution controls to keep other coal plants operational, it has primarily focused on replacing any lost generation capacity with its preferred version of “clean energy” – nuclear and natural gas. However, TVA is moving further into the renewable energy sector, recently stepping into the utility-scale solar market, with 16.7 megawatts (MWs) of solar projects announced in March of this year.
Private companies and developers have been responsible for additional solar development in the Valley, including two projects that now represent the largest ground-mounted and roof-mounted solar arrays in Tennessee – at a U.S. Naval Base in Millington, TN and the new IKEA store in Memphis, TN (respectively).
Adding to these solar developments, NextEra Energy Resources brought the largest solar plant in Alabama online last Friday, November 18th. The 75 MW River Bend Solar Energy Center is located in TVA’s service territory, in Northern Alabama, and will provide power to the TVA grid under a 20 year power purchase agreement (PPA).
In June 2015, the University of Alabama released a study that estimated the River Bend project would result in significant economic benefits to the region in the form of $52 million in local taxes, $468,000 in sales taxes, $51.5 million in property taxes and $145.8 million in output (including $84.8 million contribution to GDP). Recently, company officials have said that the local school system will receive $9 million in taxes over the 20-year life of the PPA.
The 300,000 single-axis tracking solar panels that make up the River Bend project will follow the sun from east to west each day, nestled between cotton, corn and soybean fields. Although the River Bend project will likely still be operational and harvesting the sun’s energy 20+ years from now, it remains unclear if TVA will continue to purchase power from the project after the current 20-year PPA expires.
Solar has only become more attractive and available as solar panel technologies have become more advanced, leading to decreased costs for solar and making it one of the cheaper generation resource options for TVA. SACE continues to advocate for increased solar development across the Valley, despite TVA’s recent signals that it is scaling back opportunities for solar, especially roof-top or distributed solar, with the expiration of incentives under its Green Power Provider program.
For now, Northern Alabama has a lot to be thankful for, as they become home to Alabama’s largest solar array and all of the benefits that come with investment in clean, renewable solar power.