Episode Description

In the first episode of Season 2, Host Cortney Piper interviews Julian Spector, senior reporter at Canary Media, an independent, nonprofit newsroom covering the transition to clean energy and solutions to the climate crisis. The pair spoke about Spector’s recent coverage of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decarbonization efforts and the Southeast’s journey toward becoming a major electric vehicle and battery supply chain hub. The episode provides a bird’s eye view of the clean energy transition in Tennessee and beyond.

Learn more about TAEBC and Spector. Read more of Spector’s work on Canary Media, including his recent coverage of the region:

Thank you to our podcast sponsor FirstBank.

Episode Transcript

Cortney Piper: Welcome to Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector. I’m your host, Cortney Piper. Welcome to season two of Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank.

If you were a season one listener. Welcome back. For those new or new-ish to Energizing Tennessee, go back and listen to our first season. Right away. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. In our first 13 episodes, we featured 17 companies making a difference in advanced energy, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, Ford, Hitachi Zosen Inova, Denso, Kairos Power, and the Pilot Company.

Our guests offered insights and updates about energy issues impacting our state. From advanced nuclear to cleantech startups, we kept finding new ways to answer a big question: Why Tennessee? As in, why are so many companies investing in Tennessee? We’ll continue to explore this question in greater depth during our new season and how people and organizations are helping energize the state’s advanced energy sector.

When we decided to launch a podcast in early 2022, we had no idea there would be so many of you out there who wanted to listen to what we had to say. We’re incredibly grateful for our listeners and have lined up some phenomenal speakers and topics for our second season. I think you’re going to enjoy it.

In episode one, we’re getting a bird’s eye view of the clean energy transition in Tennessee. I had the pleasure of speaking with Julian Spector, a senior reporter at Canary Media, an independent non-profit newsroom covering the transition to clean energy and solutions to the climate crisis. Julian recently spent time in the Southeast covering the push towards an electrification supply chain and decarbonization efforts from the country’s largest public power provider.

That would be TVA. I think you’re going to enjoy the conversation. As always, if you like what you hear, please leave a rating or review. It helps us reach others who are just as interested in Tennessee’s growing advanced energy economy. And if you haven’t already subscribed to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to be the first to hear about our new episodes.

Energizing Tennessee would not be possible without the support of TAEBC members and our sponsor, FirstBank. To learn more about FirstBank and how they can support you or your business, visit firstbankonline.com.

Julian Spector, Senior Reporter at Canary Media, welcome to Energizing Tennessee.

Julian Spector: Hi, Cortney. Thanks for having me.

Cortney Piper: So, when you got into journalism, it was the 2010s. Roughly?

Julian Spector: Yeah.

Cortney Piper: That was a really interesting time to be covering energy and climate change. So, what renewable energy development trends are you seeing in the country right now?

Julian Spector: Wow. It’s changed so much in just, the last decade. I think at the start of my career, it was still very much the niche or the phrase alternative energy was still used, meaning it’s not the real deal. It’s not the main show. It’s kind of this little thing on the side.

And what we’ve seen, it’s just solar coming way down in cost and ramping up in scale. And now battery is going that way too to the point that today the power plants getting built in the United States, clean energy is the vast majority. It’s north of 80 percent of the new, nameplate capacity getting built is.

Clean stuff. So, solar is leading the way on that, but a lot of wind. And this year we’re looking at more battery plant capacity than, new gas plants getting built. So yeah, that’s a whole different world we’re in, where this is competitive. It’s not just the early States that are mandating it.

If you look at Texas with the most rough and tumble competitive markets. They’re building more renewables than anybody else. So, I think that’s a pretty good signal. If you’re wondering whether these technologies are finally competitive or not.

Cortney Piper: Absolutely. And you visited Tennessee this summer.

You were here sort of the June, July timeframe. So, I’m sure it was hot outside.

Julian Spector: I actually came earlier in the spring and then was writing it and publishing it in the summertime frame. So no, I managed to catch the like real beautiful, springtime before it kind of turned, turned swampy and summery.

Cortney Piper: That’s my favorite time of year.

Julian Spector:  It was lovely. It was great.

Cortney Piper: Well, we were happy to have you in the state. What sparked your interest in covering the clean energy transition in the South? I mean, especially in Tennessee.

Julian Spector: Yeah, well, we’ve been doing a lot of coverage at Canary Media on the impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act and kind of how that’s changing the landscape, both in terms of business opportunities for clean energy and in terms of just the actual landscape is changing.

And one of the huge repercussions of that is we finally have federal incentives for manufacturing clean energy in the United States, which really wasn’t a big part of the industry in the past. There was kind of a tacit acknowledgment. I think that, if it’s cheaper to import it from China, we’ll do that.

And if that gets us more solar panels and batteries. That’s, good for everyone. And the IRA changed things and said, actually for, each of these key components you make in the U S here’s additional tax credits. And that just kicked off this incredible flurry of factory commitments, but also actual construction and openings.

And we started noticing when we were tracking, we made a map, seeing where all these new clean energy factories are going, and they weren’t going to the states that had been the first ones to pass the big solar commitments or battery installation mandates or EV adoption mandates. It’s not like the kind of rah, rah climate policy States.

And it’s not even like the old rust belt, like Michigan is getting a lot of the factories, but it’s the Southeastern States. We’re getting the most sheer private investment in new factories. So, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee you’re getting these. Just billions and billions of dollars going into the building, the batteries, building the electric cars themselves, and now there’s a new kind of battery recycling industry springing up that’s related to those.

So, we wanted to just get a on the ground view of like, why is that happening here? What are the factors drawing those manufacturers to the South specifically? And what does that really mean for the long-term project of decarbonizing the U. S. energy system? Like, is the country more likely to achieve its climate goals because the South has become this, this powerhouse of clean energy production?

Cortney Piper: You’re right. Tennessee and the surrounding region have dominated the headlines with our growing EV supply chain. And, in fact, our governor right before the pandemic. planted his flag and said, I want Tennessee to be the number one state in the country for the electric vehicle supply chain. And you recently wrote about how the surge didn’t happen overnight but was decades in the making.

You talked to one of our board members, Matt Kasper, who was a former commissioner of economic and community development in the state of Tennessee. And I’ve lived here in Tennessee for 25 years now. So, I’ve had this pleasure of working with people that were here from the very beginning. They would say when Senator Lamar Alexander was our governor and put all these wheels in motion because he was the one that started recruiting foreign automakers to the state.

So, I’ve had that sort of opportunity to talk to people and sort of see things happen step by step by step. But talk to me about your observations of our electric vehicle supply chain as an outsider and somebody who hasn’t been here for 25 years.

Julian Spector: Right. Matt was a real help as I was trying to understand this history I actually first met him at a solar project because he’s involved with running Silicon Ranch, probably the biggest, Tennessee based large scale solar developer so I met him in a field out in Shelbyville where they were inaugurating this new large solar plant to power Vanderbilt University, and then realized, yeah, this whole background doing economic development for Governor Bredesen and, he’d personally been involved in a lot of these deals to, Lay the groundwork for VW coming to Chattanooga or for Ford to do the Blue Oval City and outside of Memphis So yeah, I love history.

I love studying history and seeing How the state of play today is shaped by what came before and, what I was learning in the course of reporting on this is how there’s been this really concerted effort since I guess around the 60’s to start shifting the economy from primarily agricultural kind of agrarian old school workforce and products and intentionally build up the high-tech manufacturing space.

And it took a while, you can’t just do that overnight, but bit by bit folks were able to attract, like Nissan was one of the big early, foreign automakers that came and set up shop and then started building out this whole supply chain of all the parts and, suppliers, auxiliary things you need to put in cars.

And then the full-fledged car makers started coming as well after that. And I think there’s a few things going for it. Certainly, I kept hearing the workforce, is a real valuable resource and you got a lot of good universities and technical chops. So, the automakers look for that also just the sheer physical, logistical capabilities of Tennessee.

Cortney Piper: Julian, you also wrote that the Southeast has become indispensable to the national quest to clean up transportation related emissions. Where do you see this going in the next five or 10 years?

Julian Spector: I think among all the clean energy technologies. The electric vehicles are the most consumer facing now that people have more options on the market.

They’re voting with their wallets and, the rate of new sales keeps climbing. So, from what I’ve seen, just expect that to take off at a rate. That goes way faster than the other kinds of clean technologies that are just, a little stickier, a little more friction to their adoption.

And that has all these ramifications for, the grid and for society. And, we’re going to have to figure out how to make sure we’re getting enough electricity to all the places where people want to be driving their electric cars at the right time and everything. But Tennessee has been laying the groundwork to be a major producer of it.

I mean, getting Ford to come in. There’s really no more iconic vehicle than the Ford F-150, best-selling vehicle in America for 40 years plus and to have that made in Tennessee seems symbolic of leading into the new clean transportation future. And separate from actually building the key ingredients of that future, I think the Tennessee Valley Authority has an interesting role to play there because since they’re public power, they aren’t driven by sending the most profits to some Wall Street shareholders every quarter.

Instead, their goal is to provide affordable, reliable power for the region and to develop the economy of the region. And so, they’ve played. A really active role in helping bring forward and helping bring some of these other high-tech manufacturers, which in many cases requires them to beef up their supply of clean energy because the new high tech demand sources, these factories or data centers and all that, they want clean energy too.

And so. I think sort of more than maybe any other part of the country, there’s this kind of union of purpose between the grid planning, the energy planning and the industrial planning going on there. In a way that, it’s not over yet, but so far that seems to be kind of helping grow both sides, like helping support the manufacturers and boosting clean energy in the valley.

At the same time. So that’s a neat trend to see.

Cortney Piper: Let’s talk about TVA. So, when the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council was formed, we formed it with this premise that TVA is an asset for all those reasons that you stated. It is public power, and it has this three-pronged mission of environmental stewardship, power generation, and economic development.

So, when you came to visit Tennessee and you wrote about TVA, you wrote that if public power truly can lead the way in economy wide decarbonization, TVA is the largest and best-equipped practitioner to prove it. So, let’s talk about what makes TVA the most equipped and what are some areas for growth?

Julian Spector: The largest is easy.

It’s like 10 million customers.  Nobody is operating at that scale in that kind of non-profit public model. And then as far as best equipped, they have a lot of technical expertise from their kind of legacy operations that’s turning into interesting assets for the new kind of clean energy planning.

And it’s notable. I think that you always saw them as an asset because certainly a lot of people like to hate on them, which is true. probably every utility, but TVA gets, flack from all sides like, Oh, they’re even though they’re non-profit, they’re still a monopoly. So, there’s a whole group of people who don’t like that because they’re too big and they like big solutions.

And people who think they’re not moving fast enough. And so, I kind of came into reporting this really trying to answer the question of like, are they moving fast enough? I don’t know. A lot of people say they aren’t and that they’re trying to lock in new fossil-fueled plants when they shouldn’t be.

And what I learned is they hadn’t moved very quickly on clean energy over the last decade. So, when the rest of the country was kind of figuring out wind and solar could be cheap and effective, TVA didn’t dip its toes in very much. But it did have legacy. It’s already like more than half of their generation is carbon-free from all the hydro and the nuclear that they’ve had for decades.

So, they’re starting from a fairly clean baseline. And then what I learned is that they switched gears in just the last couple of years. to go full throttle on new clean energy construction. And when they set their mind to something, they can just move like nobody else. Cause they don’t have a lot of the layers of oversight that other utilities have.

So, they don’t need to run every decision through a public utility commission, which in other States, they get to sign off on what utilities are allowed to build and recover their costs for. But the public power doesn’t have that. So, they don’t have to convince these regulators that clean energy is a good thing.

They could just decide that it’s good and go for it. And then they have this sort of long-term planning capability because they’re not beholden to a quarterly Wall Street schedule of having to increase earnings and increase profits and sort of keep ratcheting that up as the most important thing they can say providing clean and affordable and reliable power to this community over the long term is the most important thing.

And that means they’ve both been able to fast-track the near-term renewables development. They just last year put out a call for five gigawatts of new clean energy capacity, which is going to be presumably like almost all solar. When it gets built and I went around looking at other utility, clean energy procurements, and I don’t think any other utility has ever asked for five gigawatts of clean energy in one go.

I think that scale is just on another level. So, they’re building that they’re building all this new solar at the same time, they’re thinking long term and considering projects that aren’t really being done in the more short-term market driven parts of the country. So, these would be small modular nuclear reactors, which is building on this legacy nuclear experience but trying to make them more bite-sized.

So, you don’t run into the kind of issues that Georgia did with Vogel just being so huge and getting way off schedule and over budget. So, they’re scoping that out. That’s not coming anytime soon, but maybe by the end of the decade, getting in the 2030s. If they can get the technology to where they think it’s viable, you might start seeing a bunch of these say, 300-megawatt reactors popping up.

And then the other key one to watch is what’s called pumped hydro storage. And that’s the new battery for the grid. Even with all the excitement on lithium-ion batteries, 90-95 percent of U.S. Grid storage capacity comes from these legacy projects that just pump water up a hill.

And store it in a reservoir and then you can run the water down when you need it and turn a turbine and generate electricity again. So, I visited TVA’s biggest pumped hydro facility is called Raccoon Mountain right outside Chattanooga. And it’s gorgeous I’ve been to a lot of lithium-ion battery installations.

They’re super boring. It’s just like shipping container-sized boxes, white metal boxes with batteries inside. But this is far bigger than any lithium-ion battery anywhere. More than 1600 megawatts. which is just massive, and it can theoretically keep that huge amount of power flowing for up to 22 hours which is just enormous.

And that was built in the 70’s. So, it’s like 70’s era technology that’s outperforming anything that the modern energy storage technology has come up with since. But the key point being, nobody’s built one of these things in a few decades in the US anyways, because now that we’ve deregulated a lot of the power sector and things need to be competitive in the energy markets today to generate a return for private investors, no one’s really figured out how to make that work for this kind of asset, which takes years to build, it could be like a billion dollars of upfront capital expense.

And then it pays itself off over like 50 years or more. But that just doesn’t really work in the model of fast paced competitive private markets. However, if you’re TVA and you’re used to thinking in multi decade timelines, then that could be a thing. They build a new one to store all that solar power that they’re building and store, they don’t have a ton of wind, but just whatever the ups and downs of the renewables are, you can pump that water up and keep it there.

And then you have clean power all through the night.

Cortney Piper: The really interesting thing with TVA, and I can tell you, as the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council has been represented on a lot of TVA working groups and committees related to their integrated resource plan, we have certainly seen a shift in TVA as well.

So, you talked about how TVA was kind of puttering along, yeah, clean energy, puttering along, and then the last couple of years it was like. The foot is on the gas pedal, and we are going and, what I’ve observed too is, and you mentioned this in your reporting, is because Tennessee has been attracting a lot of the automotive supply chain and because we are also a hub for North American headquarters.

Those companies that are coming here have very aggressive corporate sustainability goals. And when they come here, a condition of locating or staying or growing in Tennessee is you’ve got to give me access to renewable energy. So, it has been incredible to see that kind of economic development poll resulting in TVA’s reaction.

Yes, we can. We’ll do this. We’ll look at this five gigawatts of that. So that’s been interesting and sort of fascinating to watch over the last couple of years here. But final thoughts, Julian. You have been reporting on this topic for a while, you have seen a lot of things. So, what are some gaps or areas of improvement Tennessee can capitalize on in this clean energy transition?

Julian Spector: I think Silicon Ranch has taken a very thoughtful approach. They’re the ones building a lot of the biggest solar plants in Tennessee and they’re very holistic and collaborative in how they approach it because they want to be good neighbors. Silicon Ranch has tried to model this.

It’s collaborative approach of saying we’re going to be your neighbor for 20 years or more. We want to be a good neighbor. So, what can we do to make everyone have a good time here? And I think that kind of thing is probably going to be more necessary for the industry at large in the years to come.

We’re in the early stages of the massive renewable’s buildup, but land use is already emerging as one of the conflict zones and where things might get tricky. And then I think bigger picture, communicating the benefits of this stuff is really important. I think the public awareness of the state of clean energy always lags a few years.

But, telling that story and showing Hey, you know how your bills probably went up when gas prices went up, the more solar we use, that reduces your exposure to gas prices. So, if we don’t want to have your home energy bill rising because Vladimir Putin goes and invades the country on the other side of the world, solar is American-produced energy that is providing a counterpoint to, the fossil fuels that are tied to these global markets and things.

So. Yeah, I think it’s always good to make sure the community is aware of how they’re benefiting from these changes that are afoot because change can always be. A little daunting, a little scary. It can be tough. And then I think on the electric vehicle side, it’ll be interesting to see how the state, paves the way for drivers and customers in Tennessee to benefit from those electric vehicles, cause.

You do need some coordination on public charging and there might need to be some improvements to the grid itself to get the power to the right places to allow for the charging to happen. And I think there would be sort of a missed opportunity if Tennessee becomes one of the biggest producers of electric vehicles, but actual adoption within the state doesn’t grow very fast because there’s too many hurdles.

But the jobs are coming, right? You’ve already got thousands of jobs being added for these factories that have already been announced. And I think that’s pretty neat, too, because for a while, clean energy, the jobs have been mostly in installing it. And now we’re entering this new era where these are old school factories with manufacturing jobs that pay these good wages and.

They’re putting thousands of people to work in the clean energy industry in a way that we weren’t doing in the past.

Cortney Piper: Julian Spector, senior reporter, Canary Media. I’m officially inviting you back to Tennessee. You can come take a look at our cleantech ecosystem here. We’ve got about 25 startups every year doing climate tech and cleantech.

I want to officially invite you back to Tennessee for another tour or a subject of your choice. We loved having you on the show. Tell our listeners where they can learn more about you and your work.

Julian Spector: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for that invite. Can’t wait to get back. Hopefully there’s some live music and, some good

southern cooking involved as well. Yeah, and, to follow the work, just canarymedia.com is where I do my writing. Like I said, we’re, we’re a non-profit startup. There’s been a lot of turbulence in the for-profit media world in recent years. So, we’re trying a different model where we think we can be more sustainable by balancing different kinds of.

Fundraising and grants and reader donations and things. So, you can sign up for our newsletter. It’s all free. We want people to read everything we write, and we have some podcasts and do some short videos. So, check that out and we’re always happy to have more reader donations. But mostly we just want people reading and, getting the information they need about the shift away from fossil fuels.

So, I really appreciate you letting me talk about that.

Cortney Piper: Great. Canarymedia.com. Check it out, Julian. Thanks so much for joining us.

Julian Spector: Awesome. Have a great day.

Cortney Piper: And that’s our show. Thanks for tuning into Energizing Tennessee, powered by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and FirstBank. We’re glad to be your number-one podcast for news about Tennessee’s advanced energy sector.

If you like what you heard, please share it with others or leave a rating and review. To catch the latest episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to follow TAEBC on social media or sign up for our newsletter to hear about our events or learn even more about Tennessee’s growing advanced energy economy.