NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The nation’s largest public utility plans to shut down a massive coal-fired power plant but replace it with natural gas. That would put the federal Tennessee Valley Authority out of step with President Joe Biden’s government goal of having a zero-carbon energy sector by 2035.
Utility officials argue that the natural gas move would help pave a path toward more renewable resources and away from coal while keeping rates low and the electric grid reliable. But environmental groups warn that the agency could be wasting the opportunity to eliminate carbon-producing fossil fuels that are driving 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. CEO Jeff Lyash argued the agency is trying to strike a balance. TVA has set itself the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2035 compared to 2005.
Meanwhile, scientists have warned that failing to meet Biden’s 2035 target will only lead to more intense and frequent extreme weather events, droughts, floods, and wildfires. Teams of meteorologists worldwide have predicted that there is a nearly 50-50 chance that the Earth will temporarily reach a global warming temperature threshold that international agreements seek to avoid within the next five years.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lyash argued that electricity consumption could double by 2050, partly due to a shift to electricity-based technology focused on carbon emissions, including more electric vehicles — a technology that the independent national utility company has concentrated on In recent years.
TVA is leading the way in plans for proposed charging locations across the region and aims to have 200,000 electric vehicles in its area by 2028. It is undergoing a large-scale transition to electric for its workforce. It is collaborating on economic recruitment efforts that led Ford to choose Tennessee for its electric truck facility in a package deal that also included a partner company’s battery plant.
Lyash has said that TVA cannot meet the 100% reduction target without technological advances in energy storage, carbon capture, and small modular nuclear reactors, aiming instead for 80%. The utility has its own ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050.
“That’s what we know we can perform and deliver without raising prices and compromising reliability,” Lyash said at the Young Harris College meeting in Georgia. “It doesn’t change our ambition to reach net zero and move forward faster. But we have to be transparent and honest: if we go even faster, we will research, develop and deploy technologies that we don’t have against a commercially competitive need price.”
Environmental advocates have said a switch to gas at the Cumberland plant — one of five coal-fired power stations left in TVA’s power system, which ranges from nuclear to hydroelectric generation — would keep the plant climate-warming for decades. Would produce greenhouse gases.
“To fight climate change and better serve its 10 million customers, TVA must scrap its gas plans and instead use this opportunity to become a national leader in the clean energy transition by investing in renewable options. Energy — such as solar, wind, and battery storage — that are now affordable, effective, and available,” said Eric Hilt of the Southern Environmental Law Center, adding that the prices of those renewable resources are falling.
TVA officials have said their preferred option would be natural gas in Cumberland. Another alternative in their proposal is solar energy with storage. Personal open days to discuss the options are scheduled for May 17-18 as the agency considers a final decision in the coming months.
The utility plans to add 10,000 megawatts of solar power to its system by 2035. They have collaborated on projects with several leading industrial clients seeking to link their operations to renewable energy sources.
TVA powers provide electricity to local utility companies serving 10 million people in Tennessee and parts of six surrounding states.