Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘Dead in the water’: How TVA bottlenecked a community-driven solar project

A TVA solar project. Photo by TVA

Emails show the utility could be leveraging the solar array to keep an electric cooperative locked in a long-term power agreement.

Gail Ford retired to a rural community in East Tennessee because she wanted to be closer to nature. A longtime nurse from North Carolina, Ford applied her caretaker mentality to her new surroundings: She planted native bushes for the local beaver population and explored woodland trails in her trademark sneakers. But Ford was unsettled. “It has become very concerning to me what we’re doing to our planet,” she told me over the phone in September. 

Four years ago, Gail gathered community members, environmental lawyers, and renewable energy experts in Pleasant Hill, a tiny, tree-covered town of 550 residents between Nashville and Knoxville. The group brainstormed how to lessen their reliance on fossil fuels until they came up with a master plan: a microgrid. 

Microgrids are localized grids that can disconnect from the traditional energy grid to operate autonomously, often powered by renewable sources like solar. Ford’s group proposed a three megawatt solar array to power the microgrid, which would store backup energy in a giant battery. After accessing funding through grants and private investors and partnering with their local electric cooperative, the group found land along the interstate to build the solar project. They planned to install a sign that read, “Gaynor Solar Array at Pleasant Hill.” 

The name pays tribute to the landowner, organic hemp farmer Beth Gaynor, and her late father Marty. A unionized laborer who spent half his life at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar nuclear plant, Marty was a veteran and self-described environmentalist proud of his work with carbon neutrality. “My father would’ve been extremely proud of the project, and of the use of his land for it,” said Gaynor. 

In April, Pleasant Hill’s utility, the Volunteer Energy Cooperative, or VEC — which buys power from TVA — applied to the agency’s Flexibility Research Project. The pilot program, a two-year old initiative, planned to allocate 300 megawatts of privately-owned renewable energy for local utilities to generate a small percentage of their own power. The Gaynor solar array proposal was praised by a TVA executive. 

But in August, TVA waffled on the basis that the project was not owned by VEC, but by investors who would own the array for a few years to make their money back before handing it over to the electric co-op — a typical process for solar projects, according to Gil Hough, executive director of Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association.

An email from July reveals that a TVA employee told VEC it could move forward with the project — but only under programs eligible for utilities that sign a new, 20-year contract with TVA. Now, residents and solar advocates are concerned that TVA could be leveraging the solar array to keep VEC as a customer.

According to its application, VEC’s proposed 3 MW solar project “presents an educational opportunity for the entire Cumberland Plateau area and its visitors,” including field trips for local students and pollinator-friendly landscaping to support bee colonies. The solar project and microgrid would also reduce risks for power outages by serving as backup power supplies. Rural areas like East Tennessee are increasingly impacted by effects of climate change like flooding and storms: In February, heavy spring rains cut power to 100 customers in Pleasant Hill’s Cumberland County; in March, tornadoes ripped across Tennessee, leaving 25 dead and over 70,000 without electricity; in May, a massive windstorm’s power outages impacted a historic 130,000 Tennesseans; in July, a thunderstorm cleaved over 30,000 from the electric grid. 

Adam Hughes, an organizer with Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, said Pleasant Hill’s significant elderly population would be safer with a microgrid. “The co-op [VEC] does an amazing job keeping energy on but if the project went through, Pleasant Hill would be the single most protected community for power in the entire state of Tennessee,” Hughes said. “It [the microgrid] could literally save lives in extreme weather events.” 

In an email to Southerly, Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster praised the “entrepreneurship” of Pleasant Hill, saying “it is great to see private projects that can benefit our communities and make us stronger.” 

Deborah Holbrook, a county commissioner for the district overseeing Pleasant Hill, was impressed the project didn’t require any county investment. “We’d be very happy to have cheaper electricity around here,” Holbrook said. According to 2018 U.S. Energy Information Administration data, electric bills cost Tennesseans an average of $137.35 each month — the fifth highest rate in the nation. “Folks around here are not wealthy,” she said. “If we can make it work, it’ll be a model for similar situations.” 

Research hubs like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took note of the project’s potential as well. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory previously partnered with VEC for a national study on the solar array and the Appalachian Regional Commission granted $500,000 for research. 

In February, TVA CEO Jeff Lyash referred to the Gaynor Solar Array during a board meeting in Oxford, Mississippi. “I think that is emblematic of the growing impact of solar in TVA’s system,” Lyash said. 

Ford, pleased with the enthusiastic response, thought, “done deal.”

But according to environmental lawyer Brian Paddock, of Paddock and Mastin in Cookeville, TVA’s pilot program “turned out to be rather haphazardly put together.” Public information detailing application requirements was difficult to access. Ford and Paddock say it was hard for community members to determine the guidelines for the application except through intermediaries like their local utilities. To ensure their application was sound, the group had the  Tennessee Valley Public Power Association vet their application, which they wrote and rewrote several times before submitting in April. 

Then, Paddock said VEC received an email in August outlining new requirements for projects that made “it legally and financially impossible to build the array.” Instead of investors owning the solar project, VEC had to — and the co-op couldn’t afford it. Paddock said no investor would “give” away their investment without a return. 

“I think TVA made a mistake,” he said. “But there’s also a question of motivation.”

For more than a year, TVA has pushed new 20-year partnership agreements on local utility companies. Several small and large energy customers, including VEC, are considering pulling out of the contract for various reasons, including high costs of electricity. VEC did not return multiple requests for comment. 

TVA spokesperson Scott Allen Fiedler said that “the long-term partnership is voluntary and part of public power’s value proposition that TVA provides customers.” He added that TVA rolled out the new option allowing long-term customers to self-generate up to 5% for renewable energy projects. According to Fiedler, 142 out of 153 power companies shifted to this program.

Fiedler said only one project is being considered under the pilot program before it expires at the end of the year. Unless that is approved, none of the 300 MW promised under the Flexibility Research Project will be utilized.

“It’s like it’s dead in the water,” Ford said.

On August 28, after TVA’s board cancelled a virtual listening session for a quarterly board meeting and instead requested written comments, Ford sent a letter pleading to reverse the decision. She said she hasn’t heard anything back. On Sept. 17, Fiedler told Southerly that the Gaynor Project did not qualify. 

A day later, Ford got an official response from TVA telling her the project was disqualified under an eligibility requirement that VEC own it. But Paddock said there’s no evidence such an eligibility requirement existed when VEC applied.

Ford has one last-ditch effort. She’s writing a letter that a local organizer has promised to put in the hands of the CEO. She hopes Lyash has the power to tell his staff to reverse the decision before the flexibility program ends or VEC leaves TVA. If not, VEC will be locked into a five-year contract that allows no changes to their energy generation, such as the Gaynor array. 

Ford, who will be 78 in November, said, “I ain’t going to live that long.” 

Austyn Gaffney is a freelance reporter in Kentucky covering agriculture, energy, and climate change. Her work has been featured in HuffPost, In These Times, onEarth, Sierra, Vice, and more.