Is solar the future of power in Northeast Tennessee?

Johnson City Press • Aug 20, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Solar energy literally is taking root in Washington County.

Local electrical utility BrightRidge joined the Tennessee Valley Authority and Nashville-based Silicon Ranch Corp. in breaking ground Friday near Jonesborough on a solar farm, the first public-private partnership of its kind in Northeast Tennessee.

As Senior Reporter Robert Houk reported, the 40-acre solar power-producing plant promises to allow BrightRidge to offer its customers access to a sustainable and renewable energy source that could power 500 homes. BrightRidge CEO Jeff Dykes says the partnership means his utility can expand its portfolio to include long-term use of solar energy.

Despite the hydroelectric energy produced by TVA’s dams, the nation’s largest power utility still relies heavily on fossil fuel sources. TVA reports that 44 percent of its energy results from coal and natural gas. Another 37 percent results from its three nuclear plants. Just 9 percent comes from its 29 hydro plants and another 3 percent from 15 solar sites and a single wind source.

For more than a century, the United States has been locked in debate about its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, their non-renewable nature and their impact on the environment, a concern exacerbated in recent years by warnings about climate change. As pundits, politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, scientists and environmentalists wrangle with the future of energy, the country has inched into alternative sources and technology.

You don’t have to look far outside of Johnson City to know the economic and environmental questions around fossil fuels.

Erwin lost its place as a railroad hub in 2015 after more than a century of operations, largely due to reductions in coal shipments. Miners in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky know the concern all too well.

Meanwhile, environmentalists continue the fight against mountaintop removal for mining in Southern Appalachia. The practice has resulted in significant alterations to the landscapes of hundreds of mountains and more than 1.1 million acres of land, according to Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit advocate for economic and environmental health in the region.

So is Washington County’s solar farm the sign of things to come? Will alternative fuel sources finally take hold in Northeast Tennessee? What sources make the most sense? Solar? Wind? Nuclear? All of the above?

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