More Power To You 

TVA considers big changes for an energy-efficient future.

Use more energy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will charge you less; use less, and you'll be charged more.

That's the core of a newly announced pricing structure for electricity, one that TVA officials say is necessary in a more energy-efficient future. If you can afford to generate your own power with solar panels, for instance, or can afford energy-efficient appliances and devices, you should pay more for the power you get from TVA. If you can't afford those things or choose not to have them, your rate for power would go down.

TVA leaders simply liken the proposal to "buying bulk at the grocery store." But opponents call it "heavy handed" and "unfair" and argue it would restrict the solar power market.

More and more TVA customers are generating their own power, explained Cass Larson, TVA's vice president of pricing and contracts, calling it a "seismic shift." Even though TVA cut costs by $800 million and invested $16 billion in new technology over the last few years, it won't be enough to cover the cost of maintaining the electricity grid if consumer demand for power falls the way TVA thinks it will.

TVA leaders said if they don't change the way they charge for power, they could go the way of RadioShack, they said, which saw smartphones replace many of the gadgets they once sold.

"Similarly, technology is forcing every energy company in America to change," TVA leaders said in a recent essay called "A New Pricing Paradigm." "At TVA, we need to be ahead of the game for the people of the Tennessee Valley."

click to enlarge First Congo’s first solar panels.
  • First Congo’s first solar panels.

TVA argued the change would make pricing more equitable to lower-income customers. Also, the change could be an economic boon for the Valley as lower energy prices could attract new companies to open here.

But a new coalition — Tennesseans for Solar Choice — blasted the move last week, vowing to "work together across political lines to ensure that TVA, as a self-regulating, federal monopoly does not make decisions that limit customer choice for residents, businesses, or local power companies, through unfair rate structures or heavy-handed tactics that restrict the solar power market."

The coalition is an uncommon — even unlikely, perhaps — assortment of groups including Conservatives for Energy Freedom (CEF), the Tennessee Small Business Alliance (TSBA), the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association (TenneSEIA), and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE).

Jimmie Garland, a Tennessee leader for the NAACP, said "solar choice is about taking the power back from monopolies who make decisions behind closed doors and instead giving that power to the people."

Former TVA board chairman, S. David Freeman, said the organization is "lagging behind in solar, and this is not acceptable."

Scott Brooks, a TVA spokesman, said it would be a change in the way they charge for energy, not in the cost of the energy itself, and that it would not generate new money.

TVA is currently in talks with regional utilities like Memphis Light, Gas & Water about the proposal.

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