TVA has long relied on coal power. But the federal utility is an outlier in the nation’s utility infrastructure, where power companies are typically owned by individuals or investors and subject to the oversight of shareholders and public utility commissions. TVA is self-regulated — delegated its own authority under the Clean Air Act.
Environmental groups in Tennessee are now eyeing a different federal tool to place limits on TVA’s emissions: A 2021 Biden Administration executive order requiring a “lead by example” from all federal entities in order to achieve 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity in federal agencies by 2030.
“The Court’s ruling puts a premium on the Biden Administration ‘lead by example’ order,” said Amanda Garcia, an environmental attorney and director of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Biden to work with TVA on clean, affordable, renewable energy.”
TVA officials noted last week they have already made progress in decarbonization efforts, independent of the now-derailed EPA rules. TVA’s goals, set out in a strategic plan last year, are to reduce its 2005 emission levels 70 percent by 2035 — and net-zero by 2050.
“We believe decarbonization is the future,” a statement from TVA spokesman Scott Fiedler said. “TVA is leading efforts to move the industry and the nation faster and farther, together. It will take a lot of work to research, develop and deploy technologies that, frankly, we don’t have today at a competitive price.”
Environmentalists say TVA is not on track to meet those reduction goals — which go further than the proposed EPA rules struck down by the Supreme Court, but fall short of the aggressive approach urgently needed to address a warming planet.
“They will need some kind of incentive,” said Bryan Jacob, solar program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Some kind of carrot or stick to get them there.”
TVA in 2021 announced plans to retire its remaining coal-fired plants, among the oldest operating fossil fuel plants in the nation. At its peak, TVA operated 12 coal-fired power plants. More than half of those have since been retired. The utility is in the process of retiring and replacing two more: its Cumberland and Kingston coal plants.
But a looming dispute remains over what will replace those plants. TVA announced plans to replace its Cumberland plant with natural gas — another fossil fuel source instead of solar or wind energy.
“They have unfortunately doubled down,” Garcia said.
TVA is currently studying future plans for the Kingston Fossil Plant, where other dangers posed by coal plants were brought into sharp focus in 2008, when millions of cubic yards of ash — the physical byproduct of burning coal — spilled into neighboring communities and waterways, destroying homes and sickening workers hired to clean it up. Legal challenges brought by those workers and their surviving family members remain ongoing.
While environmental groups in Tennessee continue to pressure TVA to pivot to cleaner energy, they also caution that the impact of hamstringing regulation over fossil fuel power is not confined within state borders.
In June, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency issued an advisory about elevated levels of mercury in fish found in three Tennessee reservoirs: the Cheatham County, Center Hill and Dale Hollow reservoirs. The advisories noted that “atmospheric deposition due to the global burning of coal is the most frequent reason for elevated levels of mercury in fish.”
“What happens in Tennessee’s rivers and streams is not likely to come just from TVA, but neighboring states,” Garcia said. “The mercury in our fish is likely coming from the coal plants all around us.”