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Tennessee busts into renewable energy spotlight with new Ford electric vehicle campus (rendering via Ford Motor Co.).


Ford Seeks Renewable Energy For New EVs In … Tennessee?

Tennessee busts into renewable energy spotlight with new Ford electric vehicle campus and an assist from the TVA.

Ford Motor Company sent heads spinning last month when it unveiled plans for a sprawling new electric vehicle “megacampus” in Tennessee. Friendly labor policies and a boatload of tax incentives convinced the iconic Detroit automaker to build its EV showpiece in the Volunteer State, but low electricity rates and a budding renewable energy profile were also in play. Wait, renewable? Since when did Tennessee and renewable energy become a thing?

Ford Lays Plans For A Renewable Energy Campus

After getting off to a slow start in the electrification race, Ford recently kicked its EV strategy into high gear with the launch of battery powered versions of its popular Mustang and F-150 pickup truck. The company has begun creating a stir in the field of next-generation EV batteries, too.

As with other EV manufacturers, Ford has also been using renewable energy to build a clean brand image for its zero emission cars. For the all electric F-150, Ford seized the opportunity to promote electric vehicle ownership in tandem with renewable energy development. The company hooked up sales of the new pickup to a rooftop solar deal through the leading solar installer Sunrun.

Ford has also been pivoting its Michigan operations into the clean power area with an assist from the Michigan utility DTE, but the siren call of clean power from the Tennessee Valley Authority seems to have beat the Wolverine State at its own game.

What Is The Tennessee Valley Authority (Hint: Socialism!)!

For those of you new to the topic, TVA owns a sprawling portfolio of power plants that provide electricity to local utilities in practically all of Tennessee and bits of the surrounding states. TVA is also a federal agency with a public benefit mission, created as part of the poverty fighting policies of the 1930s. The Depression-era economic development plan also produced hundreds of rural electric cooperatives all over the country, tasked with creating new economic opportunities by lighting up rural areas that the for-profit utilities were ignoring.


TVA is probably best known for owning a series of hydroelectric dams along the Tennessee River and its tributaries, which is not so great for the river’s ecosystem, but which does count as renewable energy.

Today, though, hydro only accounts for a fraction of TVA’s energy 20th century portfolio. As recently as Fiscal Year 2005, coal took the lion’s share at 57%, but much has changed in the past 15 years.

As of FY 2020, coal had shrunk to 14%, with gas (27%) and nuclear (41%) gobbling up much larger shares. Hydro now stands at 13%, slightly more than the 10% share it held in 2005.

Wind and solar didn’t even make the pie chart in 2005, and their 2020 share of 3% is still less than impressive. Still, the utility adds in nuclear energy and a 2% share for energy efficiency programs, to claim a 59% “carbon-free” energy profile for fiscal year 2020.

Renewable Energy Vs. Nuclear Energy

So far, TVA’s renewable energy record has been less than stellar compared to its interest in growing its nuclear profile. As of last year, TVA owned the third-largest nuclear fleet in the US.

On the brighter side, last year TVA adopted new rules that set the table for manufacturers seeking more clean power. The new rules enable local utilities to get up to 5% of their electricity from local sources instead of from TVA.

That may sound like small potatoes, but it does open the door for grid-connected industrial and commercial campuses, like the one planned by Ford. The new rule also allows for participation in community solar programs.

On the down side, as of last year TVA was still anticipating a measly 10% share for renewables in its portfolio by 2030. Part of that dim projection could be attributed to continued growth in its nuclear portfolio, except maybe not.

The agency’s Bellefonte nuclear power plant in Alabama, for example, appears to be finally and really most sincerely dead. Work on the plant began in the 1970s, and proceeded in fits and starts until 2016, when TVA found a buyer. However, the sale was contingent on meeting regulatory mileposts, which apparently the buyer failed to do.

Now the nuclear ball is back in TVA’s court, but after reportedly spending $5 billion on the project, TVA seems to have had enough. Last month the agency returned its construction permit, effectively putting a permanent lid on it.

More Renewable Energy For Tennessee

Solar advocates have pointed out that the 1,600 acre Bellefonte site is already equipped with transmission lines for a grid connection. They also note that TVA already owns the land, and that TVA has been scouting sites for solar development.

That doesn’t mean TVA is ready to festoon the property with solar panels, but if it does, that would be just one of many solar projects coming down the pipeline.

After all, TVA has a public benefit mission to fulfill, and that means creating new jobs. The agency is well aware that manufacturers like Ford are among the companies seeking clean power for their factories.

Companies and organizations with sustainability goals are looking for green reasons to locate or stay in the TVA service area and we have solutions for them,” TVA says. “To increase availability and reduce the cost of renewable energy, we have developed TVA Green3, a comprehensive portfolio of renewable solutions to meet the sustainability goals of business and residential customers, offered in partnership with local power companies.”

TVA Green is about working closely with partners to provide innovative solutions, making our region more competitive for jobs and investments,” they add.

Last year TVA toted up its renewable activity and noted a 70% increase in its solar capacity (counting contracted sources along with the ones it operates), adding a fairly impressive 1,600 megawatts to its hydropower capacity.

That sounds all hearts and roses, but clean power advocates charge TVA with monopolistic practices that clamp down on the pace of progress, partly by throwing roadblocks in the way of residential rooftop solar.

Be that as it may, Ford’s new EV campus could provide an incentive for TVA to pick up the pace of solar development.

Last spring, for example, TVA announced that it will add another 173 megawatts in solar capacity to its Kentucky portfolio, with 145 MW designated for a Facebook data center and the rest going to a General Motors factory in Bowling Green.

The Kentucky deal also adds 120 megawatt-hours in battery energy storage to the grid, as described by our friends over at Kentucky Today.

What About Wind Power?

Yes, what about it? TVA’s service territory is located in the southeast, which is known for having poor wind resources. Still, it is possible for utilities in the region to get their hands on wind power. TVA is a case in point. Alongside a few regional wind projects, they have been contracting for out-of-state wind power since 2011, mainly from Iowa, Kansas and Illinois.

TVA could probably get its hands on more out-of-state wind power if long distance wind transmission projects like the Grain Belt Express could beat back the opposition. Even without that angle, new wind turbine technology could enable more in-state wind energy to trickle into the TVA profile.

Meanwhile, apparently Ford is not waiting around for more wind power at its new megacampus in Tennessee. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that “TVA is currently talking with Ford about ways to achieve its carbon reduction targets, which include being completely carbon neutral by 2050.”

The Times Free Press also suggests that friendly electric vehicles policies in Tennessee have also come into play.

“Ford’s announcement of its plans to make battery-powered pickups in Tennessee comes seven months after TVA joined with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to build a network of recharging stations at least every 50 miles on Tennessee’s major highways to help ensure adequate charging capacity for the growing number of electric vehicles on the road,” they report.

Meanwhile, like it or not TVA will continue to determine the course of renewable energy development in Tennessee and the surrounding area, thanks to a new decision by FERC that affirms the authority’s monopoly over transmission lines.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Renewable energy in the works for Ford’s new “Blue Oval” megacampus in Tennessee (rendering via Ford Motor Co.).

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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