It's said in some circles of a venerable April institution, that every day should be Earth Day. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has given Memphis consumers a chance to put their money where their mouths are.
TVA's Green Power Switch offers Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) customers an option to purchase blocks of renewable energy at $4 each. TVA, which provides MLGW with its energy, currently generates 99 percent of its power from plants that burn coal, a nonrenewable energy source with environmentally detrimental effects. Renewable sources, including wind, solar energy, and methane gas, could be the future of energy.
While persuading consumers to voluntarily increase their utility costs is a tough sell, the benefits are substantial. "They're more expensive forms of energy than traditional coal energy, or hydro-power," explains Becky Williamson, strategic marketing coordinator for MLGW. "It's certainly the direction power needs to be moving to, especially when you consider the environmental impact."
The money goes to TVA's construction and operating costs of renewable energy production sites. The utility maintains two of these facilities in Shelby County. The first is a 26-kilowatt solar generation array, better known as a solar panel, located on the roof of the Bridges building at 477 North Fifth Street. That generates 45,000 kilowatt hours per year, about enough to power three homes.
The other locally mined renewable source may come as an unpleasant surprise. Methane gas that's produced as part of the wastewater treatment process is piped from the Maxson Wastewater Treatment Plant over to the TVA power plant, located on adjacent property in industrial southwest Memphis. TVA burns the methane along with coal at the generating plant. "That saves them 20,000 tons of coal a year," says Williamson. "That's having an impact on everybody, because it's an air quality benefit."
To be clear, the air quality benefit comes from the reduction in burnt coal, rather than reduced methane emission.
The response from MLGW customers to Green Power Switch has been underwhelming. Nearly two years after MLGW announced its participation, 510 of an estimated 400,000 residential and commercial customers were enrolled in the program as of January 31, 2007.
While residential participation in the Switch program leaves something to be desired, local businesses are carrying more than their fair share of the responsibility. According to MLGW, businesses have sponsored 63 percent of the green power blocks sold. Medtronic, Belz Enterprises, Rhodes College, and Two Chicks and a Broom participate.
Still, the city as a whole could warm its embrace of so-called green construction. Jim Boyd, executive director of the social services organization Bridges, says its headquarters, built in 2004, was the first green building in Memphis.
"When TVA learned that," says Boyd, "they knew it would be the perfect location for the solar array," installed on top of the building. "It's the largest commercial array in the Mid-South," Boyd adds.
The power generated in Bridges' array returns to TVA and is then sold to consumers at the slightly elevated cost of the Green Power Switch.
"Green Power Switch is a great way of getting involved with something green without installing solar panels," Williamson says. "Green power is something you do to have an impact on the world."
Customers can enroll at MLGW.com or by phone at 528-4549.