The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

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)

Related items

  • APIEL, the 13th Appalachian Public Interest and Environmental Law conference is set for Saturday, October 1
    in News

    ELOlogoELO is a student-run organization at the University of Tennessee College of Law. It is not directly affiliated with the University of Tennesse or any particular non-profit organization. It is dedicated to providing students and attorneys with learning opportunities and leadership experiences.

    Networking environmental leaders across Appalachia and the State of Tennessee

    Knoxville — APIEL is a relative newcomer to the small circle of inclusive U.S. public interest environmental law conferences. Because it is organized by law school student volunteers, APIEL is affordable to attend for students as well as citizens from all walks of life.

    APIEL is much loved and considered essential by regional nonprofit leaders and activists. It is also highly acclaimed by seasoned environmental lawyers. With just 12 conferences under its belt, APIEL has risen to rank among leading peer conferences with a much longer track record, such as the  Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the University of Oregon School of Law (39 events), the Red Clay Conference at the University of Georgia School of Law (34) and the Public Interest Environmental Conference (PIEC) at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law (28).

  • Enviros to TVA: Retire the fossil-fuel pacifier
    in News

    Cumberland FPTVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville is the subject of a suit filed by environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center.  Tennessee Valley Authority

    SELC, others file suit in hopes of dissuading TVA from future fossil options

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CLARKSVILLE — On behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked TVA to prepare a supplemental environmental statement to address concerns with TVA’s draft environmental impact statement, which details the agency’s plans to retire the Cumberland Fossil Plant.

    The Cumberland Fossil Plant, about 22 miles southwest of Clarksville, is TVA’s largest coal-fired power station and was built between 1968 and 1973. TVA plans to retire each unit of the two-unit, coal-fired steam-generation plant separately: one unit no later than 2030, and the second unit no later than 2033. But the plant will need to be replaced, and TVA is currently considering three alternatives to fossil fuel, including natural gas and solar energy, according to its draft EIS.

    (Tennessee Valley Authority already plans to close down the Knoxville-area Bull Run fossil plant in Claxton next year).

  • SACE belays solar power on Global Climbing Day
    in Air

    MEMPHIS Area residents were invited to a film screening of “Keep the Lights On” and a panel discussion at the Memphis Rox climbing gym with community members, local advocates and policy experts. The event, which ran from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, coincided with Global Climbing Day, and professional rock climbers Nina Williams, Manoah Ainuu (who recently summited Everest), Olympic Silver Medalist Nathaniel Coleman, and Fred Campbell hosted and participated in community and climbing-oriented events prior to the film screening and conversation. 

    The film follows Memphis Rox staff member and leader Jarmond Johnson, recounting his experiences with intermittent energy access growing up in South Memphis, his growth into a gang activist and mentorship role at Rox, and, ultimately, working with professional rock climber and environmental activist Alex Honnold (best known for the academy award-winning film, Free Solo) to bring solar energy to the gym. Following the screening, Jarmond and a panel of experts discussed takeaways from the film, and how equitable access to solar energy could help all Memphians keep their lights on. 

    — Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

  • That ain’t country: Activists protest proposed downtown tree removal in Knoxville

    KNOXVILLE — People assembled at 6 p.m. Aug. 19 to speak for the trees threatened by development of an art installment at the half-acre Cradle of Country Music Park at the corner of Gay Street and Summit Hill Drive downtown.

    The Harvey Broome Chapter of the Sierra Club organized the protest against the removal of five mature oak trees to make way for the sculpture and its base, which was originally commissioned to a New York City artist in 2018 and will cost the city $600,000, according to reporting from Compass. The online news outlet also reported Friday that Councilwoman Seema Singh has requested a pause in the project to determine whether there are alternatives to removing the trees.

  • Activists urge TVA to take advantage of historic US climate bill for energy-efficiency improvements
    in News

    TVA 1 2048x1365A hopper car on a train filled with coal to be delivered to a TVA coal-fired plant. John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout

    Climate bill designates TVA as a potential recipient of clean energy investments and loans

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE  Clean-energy advocates are urging the Tennessee Valley Authority to use funds provided through the Inflation Reduction Act to deliver environmentally friendly energy to Tennessee customers. 

    The massive bill Congress passed Friday includes $370 billion for clean energy investments and listed TVA as an entity that is eligible to take advantage of clean energy credits and loans to significantly reduce the cost of energy-efficient infrastructure. 

    On Aug. 12, the Clean Up TVA Coalition, including the Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Appalachian Voices, urged TVA to take advantage of the legislation and make funds available to its affiliated local power companies, which can then offer energy-efficient options for customers.

  • SACE sees many silver linings in Senate climate bill; House passage expected
    in News

    UN Climate ChangeA rainbow pierces gray skies during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. United Nations

    Climate activists stress positives of Senate climate bill despite its shortcomings 

    Amy Rawe is communications director for Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

    KNOXVILLE — The U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), an estimated $430 billion bill, of which approximately $370 billion will be allocated to investments in clean energy and to address climate change.

    It’s the single largest climate investment in U.S. history, and if it passes the House, will put the country on a path to be able to achieve roughly 40 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, reestablishing our influence in meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

  • U.S. Supreme Court’s recent clean-air ruling renews spotlight on fossil-energy producers like TVA
    in News

    TVA 4 Cumberland FP

    Supreme Court air-pollution ruling calls into stark context all that must be done

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE — The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change has renewed the spotlight on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility and Tennessee’s primary source of electricity.

    The case involved EPA efforts to implement a key provision of the Clean Air Act in a challenge brought by 15 Republican-led states. That provision, which never went into effect, would have required existing power plants to shift from dirty sources of energy — such as coal — to cleaner sources, including solar and wind, as part of an urgent effort to reduce global warming.

  • SACE released its annual utility decarbonization tracking report, and it’s not pretty
    in News

    methane leaksBloomberg reports that methane leaks from the natural gas sector may be far worse than estimated by the EPA. While replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas ones reduces air pollution it may not help at all with climate change because methane is 30 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.  Image source: Kayrros SAS

    Report: Many utilities are not reducing carbon emissions despite public assurances to the contrary

    KNOXVILLE — Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and experience rapid and deep reductions to avoid a potentially catastrophic future, according to a new analysis by air-quality and climate advocates. Emissions must reach net zero by the early 2050s to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (C) in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

    Many utilities and municipalities have acknowledged this dynamic, but the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy s fourth annual “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast" report highlights that current utility resource plans are not in line with this overarching target. Obstacles to getting utilities on track that are discussed in our report include: increasing reliance on fossil gas, underutilizing energy efficiency, and placing limitations on popular technologies such as rooftop solar. There’s still a lot of work to do before any Southeast utility is on track to decarbonize.

  • New SACE report documents shortfalls and headwinds against utility decarbonization
    in Air

    Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's fourth annual “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast: Generation and Carbon Emissions” report will be released Wednesday, June 22

    Amy Rawe is communications director for Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

    KNOXVILLE — The report examines power-sector generation and emissions throughout the Southeast, which is home to some of the biggest utility systems in the nation, including Duke Energy, Southern Company, NextEra Energy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

    Many of these Southeastern utilities have been in the national spotlight for their professed commitment to decarbonization, but there are often inconsistencies between stated goals and resource plans.

  • Hot weather doesn’t always equal evidence of climate change, but the puzzle is almost complete
    in News

    heat photoThomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

    TVA sets record power day for June as region swelters and common sense degrades

    This story was originally published by Hard Knox Wire.

    KNOXVILLE — City residents this week joined scores of others around the world — from the Southwest United States to the Indian subcontinent — sweltering through late spring with eyes toward a summer that portends to be very hot.

    Whether directly attributed to climate change or not, the heat waves are causing untold misery in locations across the Northern Hemisphere, straining power grids to the brink and causing a sharp rise in heat-related illnesses. 

    Knoxville Utilities Board asked this week that consumers curtail their electricity use by setting their thermostats a little higher and holding off until night on energy-sucking tasks like doing laundry or running the dishwasher. That request was met in many cases with derision and unsubstantiated claims that charging electric vehicles had overburdened energy infrastructure.

    So exactly how hot is it in East Tennessee and how bad is it going to get?