Utility recommends natural gas plant despite objections

The nation’s largest public utility is recommending replacing an aging coal burning power plant with natural gas, ignoring calls for the Tennessee Valley Authority to speed its transition to renewable energy

Travis Loller,Jonathan Mattise
Friday 02 December 2022 21:26 GMT
Federal Utility-Solar
Federal Utility-Solar (Chattanooga Times Free Press)

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The nation's largest public utility on Friday recommended replacing an aging coal burning power plant with natural gas, ignoring calls for the Tennessee Valley Authority to speed its transition to renewable energy.

TVA announced the completion of its environmental impact statement for replacing the Cumberland Fossil Plant near Cumberland City, Tennessee. The federally owned utility considered replacing the two coal-fired turbines there with solar panels but instead recommended a combined-cycle natural gas plant.

Solar and battery storage would be more costly, requiring transmission upgrades that could take a decade to complete, according to a news release from TVA. The decision still needs the approval of TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash, who has previously spoken in favor of natural gas.

“Our focus is on ensuring that we provide affordable, reliable, resilient, and clean energy for generations to come,” Lyash said in the news release.

The announcement drew backlash from groups that include the Center for Biological Diversity.

“TVA’s plan to build a new gas plant and pipeline in the midst of climate catastrophe is reckless,” Gaby Sarri-Tobar, with the group's energy justice program, said in a statement. "This is a slap in the face to the 10 million customers who rely on TVA and makes a mockery of the Biden administration’s clean energy pledges.”

President Joe Biden has said he wants a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035. TVA has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2035, compared with 2005 levels.

Scientists, meanwhile, have warned that failing to meet Biden’s 2035 target will only lead to more intense and more frequent extreme weather events, as well as droughts, floods and wildfires. Teams of meteorologists across the world have predicted there is nearly a 50-50 chance that Earth will temporarily hit a global warming temperature threshold international agreements are trying to prevent within the next five years.

The TVA board of directors last year delegated any decision on Cumberland’s replacement to Lyash. He has said TVA will not be able to meet the 100% reduction goal without technological advances in energy storage, carbon capture and small modular nuclear reactors. The utility has its own aspirational goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Those opposing the construction of a new gas plant have pointed out it will likely be around for decades, long past the 2035 decarbonization goal. They have also criticized TVA for not considering options that could decrease the demand for new electricity like improved energy efficiency and demand response — which helps customers change their usage patterns to flatten peak demand periods.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has emerged in legislative hearings as a key critic of TVA. He said the utility should not be moving forward on the Cumberland decision while Biden's nominees for its board await Senate confirmation. Their installation would create a new board majority.

“The Tennessee Valley Authority is showing yet again that it is willing to lock its customers into expensive and volatile fossil fuel generation, rather than take this opportunity to adopt reliable renewable energy," Markey said in a statement Friday. “As the largest public power company in the country, the TVA has a responsibility to be a leader, not a laggard, in delivering clean, affordable power to its customers.”

TVA provides electricity to 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of the surrounding states of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

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