In historic move, Tennessee Valley Authority finally swears off coal; are power replacements up in the air?

Written by

 

“Our intelligence and flexibility as a society will be tested as the financial and industrial giants all figure out what they’re going to do.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority intends to phase out its aging fleet of coal plants by 2035, potentially replacing the age-old carbon-rich power source with increased use of natural gas and refreshed, concentrated supplies of nuclear energy as the vast utility moves to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan emerged Wednesday, about a month after the Biden administration called on the U.S. power sector to eliminate pollutants linked to climate change by 2035.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is the largest public provider of electricity in the United States. It provides wholesale power to every major municipal provider in Tennessee, as well as other metropolitan areas and smaller utility districts and cooperatives within its seven-state service area.

Coal represents 14 percent of TVA’s energy portfolio. Its other main fuel sources are nuclear (41 percent) and fossil gas (27 percent). Hydropower accounts for 13 percent of its generation, with solar, wind and efficiency programs making up only 5 percent of its current power portfolio, according to the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The consequential plan was introduced almost off-handedly on Wednesday by TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash, who appeared with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin during a live online international energy discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, a bipartisan global think tank.

The TVA plan as announced during the webinar was first reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and then relayed locally on Friday by Knoxville Compass. The Lyash and Manchin quotes and descriptions below were derived from the recorded seminar or a TVA transcript of the event passed to Hellbender Press by Compass.

Two TVA spokesmen didn’t respond to requests for comment on Friday. 

“TVA’s plan to retire all coal plants is a historic step in the right direction that will save rate-payers money and have a positive impact on the water and air quality in the region,” Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Executive Director Stephen Smith said in a press release. He had suggested to Hellbender Press earlier in the week during a separate interview that a major TVA announcement was forthcoming. He anticipates a formal announcement from TVA following the May 6 meeting of the board of directors.

(Smith is a member of the board of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press is an self-organizing project of FGS).

“To be clear though, there’s a big difference between being coal-free and being carbon-free, which is the ultimate goal,” Smith said. He said many questions remain about replacement energy sources, and called on TVA to update resource plans and “begin the proper procedures to follow the National Environmental Policy Act to accelerate the process of retiring coal and ensure their energy mix is compatible with the Biden administration’s call for a carbon-free electricity mix by 2035.”

Lyash said the TVA goal is to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions by a total of 80 percent by 2035 from a 2005 baseline. Enhanced energy storage; carbon capture; and conservation could improve the utility’s carbon balance sheet beyond the coal reduction. 

But one main constant in his message was the stated need for more aggressive use of the utility’s nuclear assets, and capitalizing on more technologically refined modular nuclear reactors.

“We need (nuclear energy) to address our long-term carbon goals, but just preserving the existing fleet and extending its life isn't enough. We need new, low-carbon energy generation resources. And of course that means renewables, solar wind, as much of that as the system can integrate, but there are limitations to that. We need storage to help that integration, yes. 

“But we need new nuclear power in order to be able to not only close the gap but generate the energy that's going to be demanded as we electrify the economy, including transportation, and to be able to produce that in a low-carbon method. And that's where I see small modular reactors, and I would tell you there are technologies ready to build now, like water small modular reactors,” Lyash said during his remarks to the council. 

Smith said pursuit of modular reactors was a “pipe dream” that wouldn’t be practical for at least 10 years. 

“TVA needs to focus on what works: Solar, wind efficiency and storage.” 

Lyash noted TVA has already phased out 60 percent of its coal generation. It has closed multiple coal plants, and Bull Run Steam Plant in Claxton, Tennessee, is among the last five to be retired. Those plants released 26 million tons of carbon in 2019. In 1985, TVA operated 15 coal plants.

Kingston Fossil Plant for example, burns 14,000 tons of coal a day, according to TVA. It was also the site of a catastrophic coal ash slurry spill in 2008.

In some cases, Lyash said, the closed coal plants have already been converted to other alternatively powered economic uses, such as a solar array at the retired Widows Creek Fossil Plant that helped attract a data center.

“We see our role as helping make the energy transition while keeping prices low and reliability high and helping the transition to the new energy economy not only for our employees but the communities we serve,” Lyash said. 

Also participating in the Atlantic Council seminar was West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin , who represents a once coal-rich state facing grave workforce retraining concerns. In notably pro-union terms, he emphasized the need to make the transition economically palatable for those whose jobs have been lost, or will be lost, in a national energy reset.

“We've got to find a pathway forward. There's a transition that's happening. We've lost 50 percent of our thermal coal production within the last 10 years. Never have we seen a decline such as that, so it's happening whether people want to believe it or not or accept it or not,” Manchin said.

The Democrat noted the challenges ahead in forging a bipartisan national solution to the climate crisis. During a recent overseas tour of foreign energy providers, he came away with the rueful realization “we are the only country that uses climate as a political divide.”

Smith emphasized there is economic opportunity in the move away from fossil fuels.

“Retiring the coal plants is a major advancement that opens the door for TVA to utilize renewable energy resources such as solar systems, battery storage, and energy efficiency programs, all of which mitigate the threats of climate change while creating millions of well-paying union jobs, rebuilding our country’s infrastructure, and fueling our much-needed economic recovery,” he said. 

“Toward that end, SACE supports TVA working with employees who may be displaced through the coal transition by investing in clean energy power sources that would generate thousands of jobs in TVA’s seven-state region.”

Scrubbers and catalytic technologies have reduced emissions from TVA coal plants steadily over the past two decades, leading to marked reductions in sulfur dioxide, heavy metal and nitrogen oxide emissions. 

Those pollutants are the usual suspects in global climate change, but coal is also derived from environmentally harmful mining practices, and the combustion of coal leaves behind voluminous and potentially dangerous coal ash dumps, such as the one currently being cleaned up at Bull Run.

Coal-plant and other industrial emissions have also been a long-term cause of acid rain, the consequences of which can be viewed among the skeletons of Fraser firs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Acid precipitation has also affected fish habitats in Smokies streams, and mercury deposition from coal combustion has generally made it unsafe to consume a lot of fish from Southeastern waterways.

Some retailers of TVA energy — such as the Knoxville Utilities Board and even rural cooperatives — have continued a push for even more sustainable energy sources to make available to their customers. TVA provides power to 150 local providers in seven states.

This week, officials with the city of Knoxville — and by extension KUB — heralded Knoxville as a leader in solar energy in the Southeast, thanks in part to renewable energy credits from a new TVA solar farm in Mississippi.

TVA’s plan could boost some zero-carbon efforts at federal, state and municipal levels, but clean-energy and air resource activists like Smith warn against too much reliance on next-generation nuclear plants or natural gas to curb carbon emissions.

Kent Minault, a well-regarded Los Angeles clean-air activist who is now the political chairman of the Harvey Broome Chapter of the Sierra Club and the chairman of the Tennessee chapter’s transportation committee, offered an astute yet almost bemused assessment after viewing a recording of the webinar shared with him on Friday.

He said the juxtaposition of Lyash and Manchin, as well as a follow-up panel discussion with energy and labor experts, was indicative of the range of concerns and interests involved in the energy and climate debate.

"Where they (agree) is on using as much of the existing energy infrastructure as possible as they proceed to acknowledge and respond to climate change,” Minault wrote in an email. 

“Lyash and Manchin buddied up on putting nuclear plants on the site of old coal burners. But Manchin wants to keep digging the stuff up in his state, so carbon capture is his big hope.

"Most everyone ... is pulling for more natural gas and calling it a bridge fuel, a long-discredited propaganda gambit that reveals the absence of any real climate program.”

He said a forthcoming United Nations report on the extent of the role that methane plays in climate change may spur deeper discussion and reflection on the true cost of natural gas.

“Actually dealing with climate straight (on) is hard, and, clearly, big economic interests will take a hit,” Minault said. 

"Our intelligence and flexibility as a society will be tested as the financial and industrial giants all figure out what they’re going to do."

Rate this item
(2 votes)
Published in News

Related items

  • Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon's budget calls for $30m in environmental-improvement measures
    in News

    kincannonmariemyers   

    Mayor wants green for green; some otherwise supportive city residents already aren't pleased with some initiatives.

    Mayor Indya Kincannon's proposed Knoxville 2020-2021 budget commits some $30 million to reduce city climate impacts, expand its use of renewable energy, invest in urban forest preservation and outdoor recreation assets and improve bus and bicycle travel in communities across the city. The budget also provides money for revitalization of the Burlington District, a historic pedestrian center of Black commerce in East Knoxville.

    The city's net budget is $384 million, which includes a $253 million operating fund.

    The budget is just a recommendation to City Council at this point. 

  • ORNL scientists fan out to local schools and bring their research home during National Environmental Education Week
    in News
    5BABPNUwStudents listen to a presentation from an Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher during National Environmental Education Week.  Courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory
     

    Scientists link research to students’ lives and communities

    (Editor's note: Karen Dunlap is a public information officer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory). 

    Esther Parish is one of eight Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists talking to students in nine schools across East Tennessee as part of National Environmental Education Week.

    On Monday, she spoke to Cathy Kimball’s fifth-grade class at Lenoir City Middle School.

    The discussion covered renewable energy resources, science career paths and how climate change may affect East Tennessee.

    Other ORNL scientists, including Debjani Singh, Liz Agee, Shelaine Curd, Spencer Washburn, Colleen Iversen, Keith Kline and Matthew Langholtz are participating in classroom events through April 30.

    The national event is organized by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), which celebrates environmental education.

    “I think it is important to reach out to young people about environmental science because the choices that our society makes regarding renewable energy resource development and climate-change mitigation will have long-term effects on their environment, health and future quality of life,” Parish said. She is a member of ORNL’s Environmental Science Division and specializes in geography and landscape ecology.

  • Biden appointees may move TVA in more sustainable direction
    News Sentinel: Biden poised to name four new TVA board members

    Georgiana Vines has a good overview of the changing of the guard at TVA as Biden takes the reins on the giant public utility. 

    Environmental groups are hopeful that new appointees could steer TVA toward more sustainable energy sources and put a focus on the role of power production in climate change.

  • KUB commits to solar power – and a controversial long-term relationship with TVA
    in Air

    solar on a hillsidea7ed9a9435304bf48f15e8223272129a 

    Last year, Knoxville Utilities Board committed to supplying 20 percent of its electricity through solar generation by 2023, through Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Green Invest program. By 2023, KUB will provide 502 megawatts annually of new-to-the-grid solar power to its customers. This represents the equivalent of enough energy to power 83,000 homes. The $1.63 million cost will be paid by a credit provided by TVA as part of its 20-year partnership agreement with KUB.

    The announcement was celebrated by solar energy advocates, including the Tennessee Solar Energy Industries Association, but some environmental watchdogs maintain there are issues with the contracts that local power companies had to enter into with TVA to participate in Green Invest.

    For the past few years, TVA sought 20-year rolling contracts with local power companies. KUB’s previous contract with TVA was for five years. In August 2019, TVA presented the Knoxville Utilities Board with a 20-year contract that would provide a credit of 3.1 percent on wholesale base rates and flexibility to allow up to 5 percent of KUB power to come from local sources.

    Stephen Smith, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Tennessee, has served as the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) since 1993. Founded in 1985, SACE promotes responsible energy choices in the Southeast.

    (Smith is on the board of directors of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press is an independent project of FGS).

    “Any time solar is being built, that’s a positive thing,” Smith said. But, he added, “It’s important to put it into context. What has [KUB] given up by entering into what we consider a Draconian contract?”

  • America's newest national park is wild and wonderful — and nearby
    Wide scenic winter view into the New River Gorge also shows rapids below a bend and the road and railroad tracks cut into the wooded slopes on opposite sides of the river
    The New River in West Virginia is one of the oldest rivers on earth, and it's now included in America's newest national park.  Courtesy National Park Service
     

    New River Gorge National Park preserves paddling and climbing paradise

    When you think of national parks within a day’s drive of East Tennessee, what comes to mind? Great Smoky Mountains National Park, of course. Or perhaps Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or Virginia’s Shenandoah. You have a new option.        

    New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, created by Congress Dec. 27, 2020, by way of a pandemic relief bill, is America’s 63rd and newest national park. Located in southern West Virginia, the 72,186-acre park and preserve protects land along both sides of a 53-mile stretch of the New River, which is famous for its world-class whitewater. It’s walls rise up to 1,400 feet, attracting rock climbers from across the country.

    The New River Gorge, known locally as “The New,” currently welcomes about 1.4 million visitors a year. It’s within a day's drive of 40 percent of the U.S. population, and is expecting an initial 20 percent increase in visitation this year because it is now a national park with national attention.

    Local merchants and business owners are already touting the economic benefits, including new jobs in in-store retail and dining, two industries decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

    "We're super excited about it," Cathedral Cafe manager Cassidy Bays said. She said the cafe, just minutes from the park, plans to increase staff and extend hours. "We're even building an outdoor patio to increase dining space," Bays said.

    And this is not your grandfather’s West Virginia: Locavores can find locally sourced food and lean into a vegan juice bar. Several community-supported agriculture (CSA) and co-op farms are a main source of the cafe menu. "We actually cater to locavores. We are a farm-to-table restaurant" Bays said.  

  • Ancient civilizations, natural resources and the rise of tree conservation

    Color photograph shows the grassy herbaceous ground cover and the trees planted in straight rows; This walnut orchard was planted by the Tennessee Valley Authority as part of its early mission to promote the growth of economically useful trees in the Tennessee Valley.   Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program

    Part I of this three-part series examines how the development of civilizations and rapid population growth gave rise to forest tree domestication. Parts II and III will discuss the role that the University of Tennessee’s Tree Improvement Program has played in forest sustainability by contributing to the productivity and health of Tennessee’s present and future forests.

    Wood and lumber figured prominently in ancient civilizations, ranging from everyday use for warmth, cooking, and shelter to specialty uses like veneers for furniture and construction with scented woods. 

    No matter what continent or hemisphere, as human civilizations evolved from collections of nomad hunter-gatherers to the steel, brick, glass, and mortar cities of today, the impact on forested land proportionally increased. As villages became towns and, eventually, cities, forests were harvested in an ever-increasing radius around the population centers. Wild animals and plants were also harvested in the same manner, drastically altering ecosystems and causing massive erosion.

    Nations that quickly exhausted the best trees in their limited forested lands, like ancient Egypt and Greece, met wood demands for construction or specialty products by importing wood from other nations. The then-rich forests of Lebanon and Cyprus were harvested to export timber to countries suffering from a timber famine.