By DUNCAN MANSFIELD
The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Valley Authority's renewable energy program, the Southeast's largest homegrown green power program, is operating with a surplus for the first time since 2003, thanks to additional wind turbines, as demand continues to grow.
“We have had a great year. It is the best year so far,” said Jerry Cargile, manager of TVA's Green Power Switch program. “That has made us optimistic that we can get back on track.”
Until last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had rated the program one of the top 10 renewable energy programs in the country. Delays adding 15 wind turbines to the three already on TVA's Buffalo Mountain wind farm near Oliver Springs, about 30 miles west of Knoxville, stalled the program and demand outstripped capacity.
But the new windmills came on line earlier this year, and about 45 days ago TVA's new 33-megawatt green power capacity erased the program's demand deficit. In August, TVA sold 77 percent of its generation.
That puts TVA in position to renew efforts to expand the program, now reaching about 8,300 households. Only 89 of TVA's 158 distributors currently offer Green Power Switch, which is sold in 150-kilowatt-hour blocks for an extra $4 a month.
The University of Tennessee's 25,000-student main campus in Knoxville this fall became the program's largest customer – increasing its renewable electricity purchases nine-fold after a student-led initiative. The university will buy 6,075 megawatt hours a year – about 2 percent of its annual usage. The bill: $162,000.
Students are pushing similar initiatives at Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Tech.
Consumer interest high
Nationally, consumer interest in green power is high, but many still can't identify wind, sun, water or landfill gases as renewable energy sources, according to a survey released Monday by utility consultants Shelton Group of Knoxville.
“Seventy-five percent of people say their utility should have some form of green power … (and) 72 percent said they would feel better about their utility if they did,” said Suzanne Shelton, Shelton Group chief executive officer.
“But a whopping 80 percent of people could not name one form of renewable energy. They could not come up with wind or solar. It blows my mind,” Shelton said. “It speaks to this huge educational void.”
Shelton's Energy Pulse 2005 survey was based on telephone interviews with 407 consumers randomly selected around the country. Actual results could vary by plus or minus 5 percentage points.
“We see that every day in our work, how little knowledge there is about where energy comes from, how we produce and consume it, and the implications on the environment and human health,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the environmental group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
“For the average consumer out there, the fact that energy is very reliable and very low cost, they don't pay any attention. It just hums in the background,” he said.
The Shelton survey said just over 3 percent of respondents currently participate in their utility's renewable power program, but an additional 38 percent said they are very likely to do so.
“Everybody says they want to do it, it is a great idea. But it is a low percentage that actually go through and buy it,” Cargile said.
Younger consumers, more affluent consumers and better educated consumers are more likely to buy green power, but Cargile said TVA's experience has been all demographics have supported Green Power Switch – from college students to empty nesters.
Smith said the key to increasing participation, though, may be in moving away from voluntary programs to mandates. Twenty-two states have set renewable energy goals for their utilities, though none yet in the Southeast.
On the Net:
TVA Green Power Switch: http://www.tva.gov/greenpowerswitch