MAJOR FUNDING Through Micro-Investments

The new July/August issue of Solar Today contains an article by TSEAs Technical Director offering a new idea for a solar program within TVA. Micro-investments allow anyone to invest in a project because the cost of a single share is affordable. A recent micro-investment concept was developed by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work in creating economic and social development for the poor. A similar concept, savings bonds, was used in the United States and other countries to finance costs for World War I and World War II. During World War II, half the U.S. population purchased approximately $186 billion in savings bonds. This investment accounted for nearly three-quarters of total federal spending from 1941 to 1945 — all from families whose average wage was $50 per week.

The Tennessee Solar Energy Association (TSEA), an ASES chapter, has as its mission the promotion of the widespread use of solar energy in the state of Tennessee. Unlike most states, Tennessee is served entirely by electric distribution companies who purchase power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The TSEA will use the concept of micro-investment to provide opportunities to all ratepayers to invest in solar projects in Tennessee. The success of our endeavors in Tennessee will mean that the concept can easily be duplicated in other states.

Financing solar projects through micro-investments offers many advantages. First, consumers and businesses would neither have to finance nor build their own solar projects on their properties. This eliminates three barriers they often face: (a) unsuitable properties for solar because of trees or rooftop alignments; (b) building permits and grid interconnections; and (c) large financial investments with long payback periods. Second, by opening investment opportunities for all ratepayers, a micro-investment plan should attract customers who otherwise would or could not have considered their own solar projects. Third, micro-financing can be used for large solar projects to benefit entire communities, taking advantage of the lower overall costs of large-scale projects. Finally, micro-investments would provide large sums to utilities and other solar companies who might otherwise not be able to finance a solar project.

Proving the Model at TVA
In the Tennessee Valley, TVA is a closed system in which all 155 distributors buy power from TVA, making it an ideal utility for studying this micro-investment model. Moreover, as a federal power authority, TVA plays an important role in the Tennessee Valley as the regional stewardship agency and supplier of public power. TSEA envisions that TVA would establish a micro-investment program, achieving even greater economies of scale than the individual distributors could achieve.

A 2012 Hart Research survey, funded by the Solar Energy Industries Association, found that 92 percent of voters “believe it is important for the United States to develop and use solar power.” TVA, serving 9 million people in the Tennessee Valley, can play a large role in finding the relationship between how much the public says it wants solar energy and how much the public is willing to invest.

TVA’s aging coal-fired plants are more than 50 years old and are depleting TVA funds to meet increasingly strict air-quality standards. As a result, the TVA has little funding available for solar energy. Although TVA has a renewable energy program known as Green Power Providers, which provides long-term power purchase agreements, the program has not produced a bankable level of funding that has resulted in loss of jobs and statewide solar installers to look elsewhere for work. The small amount of funds allocated for the program were absorbed in the first trimester of this year.

As a federal authority, TVA is in an ideal position to undertake a micro-investment program. Under the TVA charter, the president can direct the U.S. Department of Energy to provide support and resources as requested by the TVA board, which is directed to make studies “in the application of electric power and a better balanced development of the resources of the region” (Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, Section 10). Furthermore, TVA pays no property tax, has a plethora of sites where large solar installations can be located, knows where in its power system to best locate large solar farms to provide the greatest ROI, has the staff to manage the program, can handle the procurement actions and can set aside a percentage of the installations for local installers. Thus TVA can avoid all the soft costs that ordinarily burden solar purchasers. In addition, its purchasing power, backed by the aggregated micro-investments, will produce the lowest cost through competitive bidding.

I suggest to all our members and readers of this column to join ASES and help promote solar energy in their region.

Read the article and the entire Solar Today magazine

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