NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The nation’s largest public utility plans to shut down a massive coal-fired power plant, but wants to replace it with natural gas. That would put the federal Tennessee Valley Authority out of step with President Joe Biden’s administration goal of a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035.
Officials with the utility argue the natural gas move would help pave a path toward more renewable sources and away from coal, while continuing to keep rates low and the electric grid reliable. But environmental groups warn the agency could squander the chance to get away from carbon-producing fossil fuels that drive climate change.
The impending decision for the Cumberland Fossil Plant in Tennessee was a focal point at the Tennessee Valley Authority's board meeting Wednesday, where CEO Jeff Lyash argued the agency is attempting a balancing act. TVA has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2035, compared to 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.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lyash reasoned that electricity use could as much as double by 2050, due in part to a shift to electric-based technology aimed at carbon emissions, including more electric vehicles — a technology the independent federal utility has focused on in recent years.
TVA is spearheading plans for proposed charging sites across its region and has set a goal of 200,000 electric vehicles in its area by 2028. It is laying out a large-scale transition to electric for its own workforce fleet and has teamed up on economic recruitment efforts that led Ford to choose Tennessee for its electric truck facility in a package deal also bringing a partner company’s battery plant.
Lyash 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, instead aiming for 80%. The utility has its own aspirational goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
“That’s what we know we can execute and deliver, without raising prices and impacting reliability," Lyash said during the meeting at Young Harris College in Georgia. "It doesn’t change our aspiration of achieving net zero and of going farther faster. But we have to be transparent and honest: Going farther faster will take research, development and the deployment of technologies that we don’t have at a commercially competitive price."
Environmental advocates have said a switch to gas at the Cumberland plant — one of five coal plants left in TVA's power system, which ranges from nuclear to hydroelectric generation — would leave it producing climate-warming greenhouse gases for decades.
“In order to fight climate change and better serve its 10 million customers, TVA must scrap its gas plans and should instead use this opportunity to become a national leader in the clean energy transition by investing in renewable energy options – like solar power, wind power, and battery storage – that are affordable, effective, and available right now," said Eric Hilt of the Southern Environmental Law Center, who added that prices of those renewable sources are dropping.
TVA officials have said their preferred option would be natural gas-based at Cumberland. Another of the alternatives in their proposal centers on solar power with storage. In-person open houses to discuss the options are scheduled for May 17 and 18, as the agency contemplates a final decision in the coming months.
The utility already has plans to add 10,000 megawatts of solar power to its system by 2035. They have teamed up on projects with several prominent industrial customers who want their operations tied to renewables.
Lyash said supply chain issues have helped create setbacks of late. Issues with solar panel availability have led to delays of up to a year for some TVA projects, Lyash said.
TVA powers provides electricity to local power companies serving 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states.