News | July 27, 2021

As TVA closes coal plants, it must begin transition to clean energy

As a federal agency, the largest public utility in the nation, and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, the Tennessee Valley Authority has a unique opportunity to become a leader in the nation’s clean energy transition. Instead, the agency is choosing to irresponsibly double-down on fossil fuels.

This summer, TVA began exploring options to close two of its remaining coal-fired power plants: Kingston Fossil Plant and Cumberland Fossil Plant. Cumberland Fossil Plant is the nation’s largest source of toxic wastewater pollution and is responsible for millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, making it one of the dirtiest coal plants operating in the United States. Kingston Fossil Plant was the site of the largest industrial spill in the country’s history, when over a billion gallons of coal ash slurry smothered 300 acres of homes and waterways in East Tennessee in 2008. After spending years cleaning up TVA’s mess, more than fifty workers have died and more than 400 are sick. The decision to finally close these TVA facilities is long overdue.

Yet rather than invest in carbon-free technologies, TVA is now looking to replace these coal plants with methane gas. The proposal comes after the agency chose to spend $1 billion of ratepayer money on 1500 MW of new methane gas plants at shuttered coal plants in Kentucky and Alabama. Converting Cumberland and Kingston Fossil Plants to gas-fired plants would add an additional 2900 MW of new methane gas capacity — a move that would perpetuate dangerous greenhouse gases emissions and worsen the climate crisis.

TVA’s proposed shifts toward more methane gas could derail federal climate objectives and undermine the Biden administration’s target of carbon-free power by 2035, as outlined in Executive Order 14008. That’s particularly confounding since TVA is a federal agency, one of the very agencies that President Biden has ordered “to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.” TVA’s continued claim that methane gas is a so-called “bridge fuel” is deliberately misleading: gas-fired power plants are a decades-long investment that often operate for more than forty years. TVA will be emitting greenhouse gases long beyond the Biden administration’s 2035 decarbonization deadline that TVA itself has been charged with meeting.

The agency must replace its coal-fired plants with clean, carbon-free energy technologies like utility-scale and distributed solar, battery storage, demand response and energy efficiency, onshore wind and purchased carbon-free power — all viable options that will help TVA meet its energy requirements and federal climate goals. An investment in energy efficiency, in particular, could bring high-paying jobs to the Tennessee Valley while lowering bills for the 10 million customers who rely on TVA.

TVA’s investments into modular nuclear reactors at its research site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, demonstrate TVA’s ability to develop a high-tech, carbon-free future. To simultaneously push outdated fossil fuel ideas from a bygone era is irrational at best.

SELC is actively working to stop TVA’s irresponsible move toward new methane gas by pushing the agency to consider carbon-free options during its scoping process. We are simultaneously intervening in a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission case that could require TVA to allow access to its transmission system, and challenging TVA’s never-ending contracts, which are designed to keep local power distributors as captive customers and eliminate possible clean-energy competition.

Congress has instructed TVA to be a “national leader in technological innovation, low-cost power, and environmental stewardship,” so, as it transitions away from coal-fired power, the agency must not replace it with gas-fired generation and make another multi-decade commitment to a carbon-polluting fossil fuel. Instead, TVA has an obligation to move the region and the nation toward a more sustainable, more efficient and cleaner future.

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