Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. and three other power companies have asked that the Tennessee Valley Authority be required to let them use its power lines for delivery of electricity generated by other suppliers, including solar energy providers.

The companies made their request in a Jan. 11 petition filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Joe Wheeler spokesman Michael Cornelison said the rural utility is taking the action to continue to seek the best options for its 43,000 members in Morgan and Lawrence counties.

He said TVA has put 20-year contracts on the table for local power companies, such as Joe Wheeler, to sign. The contracts come with a mandatory 20-year notice to end the contract, he said.

“The way the contract is written, it is almost never-ending,” Cornelison said. “We’re not particularly looking forward to doing something like that. We want to have other options open as we continue to seek what is best for our ratepayers. That’s been our whole goal since we were established (in 1937).”

Cornelison said JWEMC is willing to pay for the use of the TVA transmission system, “but presently we’re not allowed to use those lines to purchase power from another company.”

TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said the local power companies’ request “would use the TVA transmission system in a way that would shift their costs for using the transmission system to the other 149 local power companies served by TVA.”

“That is fundamentally unfair, and it goes against the foundation of public power,” Fiedler said. “The same four power companies previously made this request to TVA and TVA denied the request, consistent with the TVA board’s long-standing policy on use of the transmission system.”

Stephen Smith, executive director for The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy group, said Memphis Light, Gas & Water is exploring other energy providers that could save their ratepayers 12% to 15% on their monthly bills. The Memphis utility has bought from TVA for 80 years, the alliance said.

“Joe Wheeler and the other power companies who are refusing to sign the contract are wanting to give their customers flexibility and options,” Smith said. “There has been and will be a lot of changes and innovation in the industry. You want flexibility to take advantage of cleaner and green energy options that are out there and those options will continue to grow.”

The three other local power companies seeking transmission system access are Athens (Tennessee) Utilities Board, Gibson Electric Membership Corp. in west Tennessee, and Volunteer Energy Cooperative in east Tennessee.

Smith said TVA doesn't want the four utilities to buy from other suppliers because then other TVA customers "will have to pay more. TVA has lost focus on being a public power entity. Their values no longer reflect public power.”

Fiedler said TVA’s operations are funded through revenues from the sale of electricity to local power companies, not tax dollars. Fiedler added TVA uses revenues from power sales to supply reliable, low-cost energy and other benefits to the entire region including river operations, flood protection and public land management.

Smith said TVA expenses have become bloated from “exorbitant salaries” and other practices.

He said other power sources include solar power, which has become cleaner and cheaper in the past decade and will continue to come down in production costs. Smith said JWEMC and other companies might wish to purchase power from large suppliers such as Alabama Power, Southern Co., NextEra Energy and Duke Energy or build their own self-generating facilities.

“Ten years ago, you didn’t see the gigantic solar farms that are here now,” he said. “Right now, Joe Wheeler can’t buy power from an independent power producer, one with a solar power farm.”

Smith said wind turbine farms in the Southwest could be a source of cleaner, cheaper power, too.

TVA is currently looking at erecting a 2,896-acre solar power farm 2 miles east of Courtland and is seeking public input into its draft environmental impact statement. TVA said details are available in a draft Environmental Assessment at tva.com/nepa.

To be considered, comments must be postmarked by March 15.

TVA serves a total of 153 local power companies across seven states, and more than 90% of them are committed to long-term (20-year) partnerships with TVA, Fiedler said.

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mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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