The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

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

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“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.

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    -Descriptions of the method used to develop and test each pathway to clean electricity.

    Register for one or more of the following webinars Wednesday, June 16, and Thursday, June 17:

    Download the report: “Achieving 100% Clean Electricity in the Southeast: Enacting a Federal Clean Electricity Standard.”

    The primary pathway is focused on distributed energy resources (DERs). We found that with significant and sustained investments in DERs, like energy efficiency and rooftop solar, these utilities can achieve a customer-oriented pathway to clean electricity. In fact, these two resources, energy efficiency and rooftop solar, could meet approximately one-third of all electricity needs for these utilities by 2035. In addition to these distributed resources, these successful pathways will also include wind power, large-scale solar, and energy storage.

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    (SACE executive director Stephen Smith is a member of the board of Foundation for Global Sustainability. Hellbender Press is a self-supporting project of FGS).