EPB Eyeing 2 Large New Solar Fields In The North Part Of The County

Friday, May 20, 2022 - by Gail Perry

EPB CEO David Wade told the board of directors Friday morning that part of the utility's mission is to make the community a better place while running a good and efficient business. This includes attracting new business activity and supporting growth of the local economy while reducing carbon emissions.


Clean energy is being addressed by incorporating solar energy production into the mix of power that is being generated by TVA.

The agreement between EPB and TVA allows EPB to buy up to five percent of its energy use from sources other than TVA. EPB has a little history with solar power from its Solar Share program that has been available since 2017. Individual customers can buy into the use of a solar panel for $3.50 each month, from the solar farm built and owned by EPB.


A new venture is a Purchase Power arrangement with private companies that will buy property, build and maintain a solar farm and EPB will buy all the power those facilities generate, said Ryan Keel, Sr. VP of Technical Operations. Two companies have been chosen to partner with the utility for this arrangement. One of them, EDF Renewables North America, has moved forward with identifying two locations that meet the requirements of both EPB and the property owners. Both sites are in EPB’s service area in the northern part of the county.


Energy generated at the two new solar fields, will not go to individual customers but will become part of the total power sold by EPB. And the utility will benefit from getting tax credits for reducing carbon emissions.


One 45-acre site will be able to generate 7 megawatts of power and another site of 49 acres can produce 8 megawatts. It was noted that technology has improved since 2017 when EPB built the Solar Share field where the solar panels are stationary. About 30 percent more power is generated from the new panels which can move as the sun changes direction. The contract with the private solar company is predicted to save a little more than $1 million in wholesale purchased power costs each year. Mr. Keel said that from five-seven acres is required to produce one megawatt. The existing Solar Share site has consistently hit the target for energy output, he said.


Energy produced by these two new solar field sites would represent less than one-fifth of the power that EPB is allowed to get from other sources than TVA in what is called the Power Supply Flexibility Agreement. A second company being considered is still in the process of looking for property that will be suitable for adding even more solar capacity.


While planning for the present, EPB is also preparing for the future, said Mr. Wade, so tomorrow will continue to be successful. The business at EPB is in two broad categories, Energy and Communications. He said the industry recognizes that for the last couple decades, energy sales have been flat. "But now we are entering a time when electricity use is increasing," he said.


One reason for the new period of electrification is being fueled by transportation and the growing use of electric vehicles. EPB needs to determine its role in EV charging, said Mr. Wade. It is straightforward in individual garages, he said, but there is a challenge for charging cars in multi-family dwellings such as apartments, condos and on the street.


And industry is moving away from gas powered equipment such as boilers that are being changed to electric power from gas. In determining how a total shift in the type of energy used will affect the utility company, Mr. Wade said that as the solar project with TVA continues, excess power that is generated will be stored in batteries. How EPB leverages to manage the battery storage market and use the patents it now holds for selling storage capacity of privately generated power to customers, possibly outside of the Chattanooga area, will need to be determined.


EPB is also starting to explore the use of geothermal heat pumps.


On the Communications side, Internet connections and customer support is being used to market the Chattanooga area and make it attractive to large businesses.


Some points driving the new budget for 2023 were noted. As proposed, there is no planned rate increase. The community-based provider has held its electric rates steady since 2015. There has been favorable weather which has helped prevent an increase. Plus the record one and a half percent growth in customers this year is a big factor in keeping rates the same, said Mr. Wade. There are many people moving into the Chattanooga area from outside the area and with that increase came a record year for growth of subdivisions, apartments and condos. And EPB is continuing to get more inquiries than in the past about big businesses and industries. That high level of growth in business and subdivisions are elements driving the new budget, said Mr. Wade.


Equipment for and building a new substation will be an expense that will not be on-going every year. Challenges caused by the supply chain problems, specifically with transformers, is figured in. The cost of transformers has about doubled in one year's time and deliveries of them are slow. EPB is making an effort to keep enough transformers available for new connections and for emergency use and will continue to increase the inventory.


And a new Operations Center Complex is being built using a design/build approach with an architect and construction company working together to find efficiencies. EPB will be purchasing some EVs this year for its fleet and looking for its role in charging technology.


On the fiber side, factors affecting the budget, include a decline in video sales and an increase in Internet and data sales. The cost EPB pays for video is going up so much the company cannot afford to pass it on. This is causing customers to use streaming services and EPB is helping people choose what is best for them. A big challenge, said Mr. Wade, is how to manage a declining project like video.


Since 2009, the cost of Internet service has not been raised, said Mr. Wade, while Internet speed has been increased. And to stay at the leading edge of Internet service, upgrades are being made to the 15-year-old network. Core equipment is being replaced and new electronics will be put on the side of every house.


After the board members have had time to review the proposed budget, they will be asked to approve it at the June board meeting.



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