Tennessee’s solar power industry stymied by red tape, extra fees

This is why the cost of local approval can add up.

“Bureaucrats, paperwork and the utility companies are our biggest problems,” said Steve Johnson, vice president of the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association and founder of Nashville-based LightWave Solar. While the power distributors in TVA’s seven-state region are mostly solar-friendly, there are cases where they push back against people who produce their own power and want to sell it to the utility.

For instance, the Johnson City (Tenn.) Power Board, the municipal electric utility, has just instituted a $950 up-front charge to allow a home or business solar system to send power to its system, and also adds a $10-a-month solar service charge to the customer’s bill.

“There is an expense involved with installing the meter” and setting up the solar service on the utility’s system, said Johnson City Power Board spokesman J.T. McSpadden. The $950 application/installation fee would be offset by the $1,000 that TVA provides the home or business to add a solar system, but then that money would not be available to help pay for the solar equipment itself, LightWave’s Johnson said.

Nashville Electric Service doesn’t charge fees for connecting a solar array to its system, but does have some requirements that cause permits to take two to three months to get approved, Johnson said. Among them: A solar permit from NES requires sign-offs by the utility’s chief executive officer, a member of the board of directors and the legal department. “Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corp. is the easiest to deal with,” he said. “With them, we can get a permit approved in two weeks.”