News | August 1, 2022

Federal agencies slam TVA’s reckless fossil fuel plans

The Cumberland Fossil Plant is one of the dirtiest coal plants in the country. (©Nancy Pierce/Flight by Southwings)

Federal agencies blasted the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plans to spend billions on a new fossil fuel plant and pipeline, saying the proposed “natural gas” buildout will do lasting damage to the climate, TVA customers, and the South’s iconic natural places.  

TVA, which is a federal agency and the largest public utility in the nation, is currently planning to retire its Cumberland Fossil Plant. The plant is one of the dirtiest coal plants in the country and retiring this aging, polluting plant is long overdue. But instead of using the retirement as an opportunity to lead the way toward a clean energy future, TVA is planning to double-down on fossil fuels by replacing the Cumberland facility with a new gas power plant.

To put it plainly, TVA’s reckless gas plans will significantly harm the climate, its customers, and the communities it serves.

Tennessee Officer Director Amanda Garcia

TVA recently released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the proposal, which gives details about the utility’s preferred plan and is required under federal regulations. The draft EIS received hundreds of comments, including from federal agencies that expressed worries about the planned gas buildout.

“Substantial” concerns from federal regulators

In a 19-page comment letter, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raise “substantial” concerns with the draft EIS, writing that TVA’s proposal lacked context, glossed over important information, and used faulty reasoning when calculating the economic and climate costs associated with the utility’s multi-billion-dollar gas buildout.

TVA’s proposed Cumberland gas plant and the pipeline that serves it will emit dangerous greenhouse gases for decades to come, worsening the impacts of the climate crisis. Communities across the Tennessee Valley are already dealing with the effects of climate change – like extreme flooding, rising temperatures, and longer periods of drought – and additional reliance on fossil fuels will only make those problems worse.

Despite these long-lasting impacts, EPA officials write that TVA did not adequately quantify or disclose the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its proposed plant. In fact, the proposed plant’s climate impact would be so significant that EPA goes as far as to say the agency “strongly recommends the proposed action be modified or a different preferred alternative be selected.”

The letter also takes TVA to task for its cost analysis, and EPA officials worried that the proposed fossil fuel buildout would lock TVA’s 10 million customers into paying for gas for decades, even as the costs of renewable energy options continues to fall. A recent, independent study shows that if TVA replaces its coal plants with clean energy instead of gas, the utility will save more than $9 billion over the next 20 years – savings that could be passed on to customers through lower monthly power bills.

“To put it plainly, TVA’s reckless gas plans will significantly harm the climate, its customers, and the communities it serves,” SELC Tennessee Office Director Amanda Garcia says. “We are at a critical moment in the fight against climate change, and the nation’s largest federal utility should be leading the way in the transition to clean energy, not dragging its feet.”

The South’s iconic parks put at risk

Fog rolls over mountains in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (©Bill Lea)

EPA isn’t the only federal agency raising the alarm on TVA’s gas plans. The National Park Service also submitted comments urging TVA to invest in renewable energy sources instead of gas, pointing out that “emissions from TVA facilities have had a direct impact on the air quality in National Park System units across the Southeastern U.S. for nearly fifty years.”

NPS officials go on to say that airborne pollutants from the burning of coal and methane gas at TVA facilities are “degrading park resources” at Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, and Shenandoah National Parks.

“From Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah’s Old Rag Mountain, the South’s national parks are home to some of the nation’s most scenic, special, and popular natural places. But TVA’s continued reliance on dirty fossil fuels puts these incredible treasures at risk. TVA must scrap its irresponsible gas plans in order to ensure these exceptional places – and many more across the region – can be enjoyed by future generations,” says Sam Evans, Leader of SELC’s National Forests and Parks Program.

Like EPA, the National Park Service also expressed concern over the proposal’s massive climate impact. NPS officials wrote that climate change effects associated with greenhouse gas emissions – like those that will be emitted by the proposed Cumberland Gas Plant – are already “dramatically impacting” National Park System units throughout the South.

A chorus of commenters calling for clean energy solutions

Both agencies – along with many other groups and individuals who commented – urged TVA to look into replacing the Cumberland Fossil Plant with clean energy sources. Renewables do not emit climate-warming gases, don’t require miles of dangerous pipelines, and are a more cost-effect long-term investment than fossil fuels.

The only way to avoid the harmful impacts that are inherent to fossil fuel infrastructure is to not build it in the first place. It is critical that TVA heed the warnings from its fellow federal agencies, scrap its gas plans, and instead invest in renewable energy sources – like solar power, wind power, and battery storage – that are affordable, effective, and available right now.