The mammoth Tennessee Valley Authority is planning to add up to 14 gigawatts (14 billion watts) of new solar capacity and five GW of storage by 2038, in a bid to draw business investors and data centres to the southeastern United States.
The TVA’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), released late last month, “also calls for two to 17 gigawatts of natural gas-fired generation over that time, a decision that’s drawn the opposition of the Sierra Club and other groups seeking to halt any new carbon-emitting power plants,” Greentech Media reports.
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“The long-range planning document doesn’t set any specific procurements in motion, and its various scenarios over the next 20 years don’t all predict the same high level of solar and storage penetration,” Greentech notes, with solar purchases ranging from 14 GW down to three. Even so, “it indicates that TVA, like utilities across the country, is preparing for the shift from fossil fuels and toward carbon-free energy as a primary generation resource, while taking steps to manage the resulting grid reliability and resiliency challenges.”
“Solar is going to have a lot of impact in terms of dispatchability and reliability on the grid,” said Colin Smith, senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables. “They’re not the first to do this, and they’re not unique. But it outlines an important trend in what utilities can do.”
Compared to TVA’s last IRP, published in 2016, “this is a substantial increase in solar procurement, and even their last one was fairly aggressive for its time,” Smith added. In 2018, Greentech notes, TVA’s supply mix was 39% nuclear, 26% gas, 21% coal, 10% large hydro, and 3% wind and solar, with 420 megawatts of utility-scale solar in place and another 480 MW in development.
While the IRP’s 20-year span could allow the utility to schedule the bulk of its renewables investments later, rather than sooner, Greentech says there may be an incentive to pick up the pace. “TVA has been making big solar deals with commercial and industrial offtakers—namely, big data centres—that could serve as a conduit for early-stage growth,” the industry newsletter notes. “TVA is working with Facebook to power a data centre in Alabama and with Google for data centres in Alabama and Tennessee, for example—projects that align with large-scale solar and wind procurements from data centre operators across the Southeast.”
That trend “will push the solar scenario to the higher case,” Smith said. “It’s very likely they’re going to want to attract big companies to come into their territory by offering these deals.”
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