The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has a blueprint to help multiple utilities swear off fossil fuels

Written by Maggie Shober

widows creek

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy offers detailed climate action items for fossil-based utilities

A new SACE report shows not only that is it possible for the four largest utilities in the Southeast to achieve 100 percent clean electricity, but there are several pathways to get there. A variety of different energy technologies and programs can be deployed to reach this goal.

The key takeaway is that we need to start now.

clean electricity standard is a policy that requires utilities to use clean energy resources to generate a minimum portion of all energy by a certain date. Since the first renewable standard was passed in Iowa in 1983 states and utilities across the U.S. have a lot of experience with this kind of policy.

As part of federal climate action, the Biden administration and several members of Congress have proposed different versions of a Clean Electricity Standard (CES) that achieves 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. SACE has called for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to lead the way by getting to 100 percent clean electricity by 2030.

To help us understand what 100 percent clean electricity would look like here in the Southeast, SACE staff developed pathways to meet a CES policy for our region’s four largest utility companies: TVA, Southern Company, NextEra (which owns Florida Power & Light and Gulf Power), and Duke Energy.

On Wednesday, June 16, and Thursday, June 17, SACE’s policy staff will host webinars focusing on pathways to 100 percent clean electricity for each of the utilities examined in the report: Duke Energy, NextEra, TVA, and Southern Company, including:

-What a federal Clean Electricity Standard is and how it could be key to kickstarting aggressive decarbonization;

-Multiple pathways with a different power generation mix for each utility to reach net-zero carbon emissions; 

-How distributed resources like rooftop solar and energy efficiency are key to decarbonizing; and

-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.

We found that when utilities have the ability to share resources to meet peak needs and reserve margins, fewer resources are needed overall. In most parts of the country, utilities already have the ability to do this through competitive electricity markets, but not in the Southeast. Having one such market that spans across the Southeast would help the region as a whole achieve 100 percent clean electricity.

Our analysis only looked at existing technologies. While it is good to know that today’s technologies can play a critical role in the pathway to 100 percent clean electricity, and so we must ramp up these technologies immediately, it is also true that investments in technology innovation are important to make it easier to get there. We still need to invest in research and development that can lead to improvements of existing clean electricity technologies and commercialization of new clean electricity technologies. This should not be a question of either deployment or research, both are needed.

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  • Lawsuit alleges TVA paid dues to industry trade groups that undermine environmental protections
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    kingstonThe Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee is shown in this file image from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

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    A coalition of environmental groups who joined forces to stop the Tennessee Valley Authority from using ratepayer money to fund trade groups who lobby against the Clean Air Act and other environmental protections filed a federal lawsuit against the utility.

    The environmentalists claim the practice potentially raises conflicts of interest and throws into doubt TVA’s willingness to comply with clean air laws even as the utility retires its coal plants in order to transition to a mix of fossil gas and nuclear power.

    The 20-page lawsuit was filed Sept. 9 in federal court in Knoxville by a half-dozen groups, including the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The groups aren’t seeking monetary damages other than court costs and legal fees.

    TVA has invested millions of dollars in measurable air quality improvements as it prepares to divest from coal as a main electricity source. Nevertheless, TVA paid membership dues to interest groups such as Edison Electric Institute (which is headquartered five blocks from the U.S. Capitol) and Energy and Wildlife Action Coalition, according to the plaintiff’s suit.

    "TVA has not been officially served with the lawsuit, so it would be inappropriate to comment on its specifics," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said early Thursday.

    “As the nation’s largest public power provider and a federal agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority needs to demonstrate leadership by halting the financing of groups propping up the fossil fuel economy,” said Howard Crystal, legal director at CBD’s Energy Justice program. “Instead it funds these groups to do its dirty work while it moves forward with building new fossil gas plants. TVA can and must do better.” 

    TVA contends it merely wants to get input from multiple stakeholders with multiple perspectives.

    "As a federal agency, TVA is prohibited from participating in lobbying activities, and the TVA Board has directed that any dues, membership fees, or financial contributions paid to external organizations not be used for purposes inconsistent with TVA’s statutory mission or legal obligations.   
    "Like other major utilities, TVA’s membership in a diverse array of external organizations allows TVA access to specialized expertise and analysis that directly benefits all of our customers at a cost significantly lower than if TVA were to undertake such work alone."

    Maggie Shober, director of utility reform at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said TVA has a special responsibility to support environmental protections.

    “TVA is unique in the power industry in that environmental stewardship and economic development are codified in the agency’s founding mission,” she said. “It is imperative that the largest public power utility operate with accountability and transparency, stop funding anti-environment and anti-green jobs work, and invest in clean energy that will support the health of the Valley and the people who depend on it.”

    Daniel Tait, chief operating officer of plaintiff Energy Alabama, said: “TVA has forced its customers to make political speech by taking money from their utility bills and using it for anti-clean energy advocacy. We have repeatedly called on the TVA inspector general to investigate this misuse of customer funds but after hearing and seeing nothing, we felt compelled to act.”

    The path to the lawsuit began when the groups used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that TVA paid $200,000 in 2018 to the Utility Water Act Group, which lobbies against parts of the Clean Water Act. They also learned the utility was paying $500,000 a year to join the Edison Electric Institute, a group that represents all private, investor-owned utility companies in the country.

  • Report: Electric vehicles could add $47 billion annually to Southeast economy
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    transportation electrification in the SE 2021 email banner

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    (This story was reported and written by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy).

    Electrifying transportation could provide an economic boon for Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. That’s what the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) reveals in a new analysis, “Retained Transportation Fuel Spending in the Southeast: Electric vs. Internal Combustion Vehicles.”

     

    SACE analyzed how much consumers spend on gas and diesel and how much of that transportation fuel spending remains in a given Southeast state and how much leaves. The analysis then looked at what happens if all on-road gas and diesel-powered cars, trucks, and buses are replaced with vehicles that drive entirely on electricity.

    DOWNLOAD THE REPORT
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    Southeast consumers spend approximately $94 billion on gas and diesel fuels annually. And because the region has nearly no oil production or refining operations, only about one-third of that amount — approximately $30 billion — is retained in our region’s economy, and the rest leaves to pay for the imported fuels. That adds up to $64 billion leaking out of our region’s economy every year. 

  • Clean-energy advocates take demands to base of TVA towers and power
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    IMG 4207Alex Pulsipher holds a sign demanding that TVA transition to 100 percent renewable energy at a rally Wednesday in Market Square in Knoxville. Courtesy Amy Rawe/Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

    Varied environmental groups offer unified plea for clean energy, coal ash management and accountability from TVA

    It was people power generating energy at Market Square in downtown Knoxville on Wednesday.

    A coalition of civic and environmental groups and their representatives met at the bottom of the two Tennessee Valley Authority towers urging the public utility to reopen meetings to public comment; swear off all fossil fuels by 2030; and carefully tend to the needs of those affected by coal ash and devise a plan to contain it for the safety of current and future generations.

    The event was punctuated by a march around the Market Square block where some 60 sign-waving and chanting marchers received supportive horn honks from motorists and encouragement from multitudes of outdoor diners — some of whom were handed information sheets and may have just been introduced to the real concept and causes of climate change.

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    Despite a decades-long effort to reduce local plant production, TVA is still a notable contributor to fossil-fuel emissions, ranging from its coal plants (which, including Bull Run, are up for retirement soon) to its natural gas-fired plants. Attendees at Wednesday’s rally called for a complete retirement of TVA carbon emissions and a transition to the use of purely renewable electricity

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  • 100 citizens attend ‘People’s Hearing’ on TVA and demand more accountability, transparency
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    Attendees raise concerns about coal ash; call for more clean energy, transparency and public engagement from TVA

    Nearly 100 people from Tennessee and other states served by the Tennessee Valley Authority joined a virtual People’s TVA Hearing. The hearing on Aug. 4 was organized by the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement (TVEDM). It included a public comment session and multiple breakout sessions for attendees to discuss specific issues facing TVA and the Tennessee Valley. 

    TVA has not held any public listening sessions in a year and a half because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and attendees called on TVA to resume such sessions as soon as possible when the pandemic ebbs.

    “TVA talks a good game about being public power but they are simply not walking the walk,” said Barbara Mott of Knoxville. “Hiding from the people is not the answer.”

    Hearing attendees highlighted a number of urgent issues facing TVA during their public comments and breakout discussions, including coal ash pollution, moving to clean energy, issues facing TVA’s workers, and high energy-cost burdens. 

    Powell resident Julie Bledsoe, whose husband Ron worked to clean up the 2008 Kingston Fossil Plant coal slurry spill and was later diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said coal ash is “extremely toxic” and, because TVA’s contractor did not protect coal ash cleanup workers, “We've been to quite a few funerals due to that. A lot of families have lost their loved ones, and many are sick and suffering.” 

    Many of the attendees and public commenters also called for TVA to transition quickly to clean energy. "We believe TVA can lead the country by achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2030, and should not be investing in new fossil gas at a time when the climate crisis demands we move away from polluting fossil fuels. If TVA were to actually allow the public to make their voices heard, they'd likely hear that same thing from folks all over the Valley,” said Brady Watson, an organizer with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

    Advocates with the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement are soliciting written and video comment submissions, as well as planning a rally outside TVA’s Knoxville headquarters on Aug. 18 (the date of TVA’s next board meeting) to highlight the need for the return of public listening sessions.

    Convened in 2019, the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement is a collaborative of organizations, community groups and citizens working to bring democracy to the Tennessee Valley Authority energy system and transform it from the bottom up. 

  • FGS calls on TVA to get serious about addressing the climate crisis

    As Hellbender Press reported in April, the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to phase out its use of coal. And as we mentioned in an action alert, TVA is conducting a scoping process pertaining to the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for retirement and replacement of the Kingston Fossil Plant. TVA is preparing similar EIS for its other remaining coal-fired power plants as well.

    Although TVA lists "construction and operation of solar and storage facilities" in these scoping documents as an alternative for replacement of coal as the power source, it has made no secret of its belief that construction of gas-powered combustion turbines (CT) and natural gas pipelines to feed them will be the best solution to replace the outdated generation capacity.

    Unlike other power utilities, TVA has been making it more difficult, financially unattractive or impossible for distributed renewable energy, storage and even efficiency projects to get realized, according to proponents of renewables and some of TVA’s local power distribution partners. TVA also reneged on its agreement with other utilities to make large amounts of wind power available to the Southeastern United States through the Plains & Eastern Clean Line high-voltage direct-current power line project.

    Below, we reprint the statement submitted by FGS during the public comment period for the Kingston Fossil Plan Retirement.

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    The Foundation for Global Sustainability urges TVA to truly step up to the challenges of climate change

    The action alternatives in the dockets for the replacement of TVA’s coal fired power plants are shortsighted and most disappointing.

    As a quasi-federal entity with a de-facto monopoly over a vast area of our nation, the Tennessee Valley Authority should strive to spearhead, exemplify, and not only meet — but exceed — most of the federal goals for decarbonization.

    By basing plans primarily on data of historic trends — unquestioningly projected into the future — TVA is apt to commit yet another horrendous miscalculation; it is prone to saddle itself with even more stranded assets.

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    Rarely a month passes without scientific discoveries of natural feedback mechanisms that aggravate the consequences of climate change. Signs that Earth’s natural life-support systems are approaching tipping points are multiplying.

    At the same time that uncertainty about prevailing conditions over the lifetime of infrastructure investments is growing, technologies are evolving at an increasing pace. Many private-sector corporations have already realized that time-proven business practices are no survival strategy.

    What’s called for today is more nimble management. TVA needs to focus on cooperative, adaptive planning for more flexible, responsive operations.

    A multitude of smaller investments that seek to attack problems from a diversity of facets will have greater probability of success than monolithic huge investments that are hard to revert, abandon, or repurpose.

    We encourage TVA to take a step back, to first look at what it can do to help improve the sustainability and resilience of our regional and local economies and of its large, small, and individual customers, WITHOUT investments that lock in carbon emissions for decades.

    Although we welcomed, appreciated, and supported TVA initiatives such as Energy Right, Green Power Switch and Generation Partners, one has to admit that in the larger context they amounted to little more than public relations Band-aids.

    Distributed renewable energy generation and storage

    It is high time for TVA to stop stonewalling renewable energies.

    The promising potential of widely distributed renewable energy generation and storage to minimize transmission losses and to boost community resilience is still largely untapped. It lends itself to easily manageable, quick turn-around, incremental projects that can readily be evolved and fine-tuned as new conditions, greater insights, and better technologies emerge.

    People in TVA’s service areas are no less likely to welcome and personally invest in solar energy and storage than the people of Germany have done, despite getting far less sunlight in their northern latitudes than we enjoy here; if only TVA relaxes its severe restrictions and abandons its adversarial stance.

    We call upon TVA to embrace, as major planning objectives, environmental sustainability and efficiency from energy generation all the way through end use.

    Sincerely,

    Wolf Naegeli, PhD
    President
    Foundation for Global Sustainability

  • Environmental groups allege TVA misused funds to fight pollution regulations

    Associated Press: Activists say TVA spent ratepayer money to sue over pollution restrictions

    A coalition of environmental groups alleges the Tennessee Valley Authority provided millions of dollars in dues to a trade group resistant to air-pollution control measures.

    TVA officials say the utility's membership in the Utility Air Regulatory Group was a way to help it navigate the complexities of federal pollution regulations, but documents obtained by the clean-air coalition via a Freedom of Information Act request show the now-disbanded trade group spent $3.5 million on legal fees between 2015 and July 2018. TVA CEO Jeff Lyash told Congress in 2019 the utility had paid UARG $7.3 million since 2001.

    The committee that approved the legal expenses was co-chaired at the time by a senior TVA manager, and in lawsuits, "the UARG frequently argued against tighter air pollution and climate regulations," according to the AP.

    The Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy was among the environmental groups calling for a review of TVA's relationship with the UARG and other trade groups.

    (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). 

  • 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. 

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

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    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?”

  • Green energy to blame for Texas grid collapse? Not so much.
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    Politicians and media personalities spread lies that cited frozen wind turbines as the reason millions lost power across the oil-rich state during an unprecedented intrusion of cold air in mid-February.

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  • 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.