TVA clearing the air: Coal critics object to $1 billion investment in 60-year-old Gallatin plant

TVA clearing the air: Coal critics object to $1 billion investment in 60-year-old Gallatin plant

April 7th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

TVA's Gallatin Steam Plant in Gallatin Tenn.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has begun its biggest single pollution control project to help clear the air around its Gallatin Fossil Plant.

But the $1 billion upgrade of one of TVA's oldest coal plants isn't winning many friends for the federal utility from the environmental community.

"We're glad that TVA is trying to cut its air emissions, but this move is just prolonging a dirty, 1950s technology instead of investing in new and cleaner sources of power," said John McFadden, executive director for the Tennessee Environmental Council, which urged TVA to shut down rather than repair the 60-year-old Gallatin plant.

"TVA is still relying upon coal, which create problems from the way it is harvested, to the way it is burned, to the way its ash is disposed of in the environment."

TVA officials insist that Gallatin is a relatively efficient, low-cost plant and the upgrade will cut smog emissions from the plant by more than 90 percent. TVA is installing scrubbers on all four of the Gallatin units to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 95 percent and will place selective catalytic reduction devices at Gallatin to capture more than 90 percent of the nitrogen oxide emitted from the plant.

"We do want to reduce the share of power generated by coal, but we want to keep a balanced portfolio that includes coal as part of our mix," said Dr. Joe Hoagland, senior vice president of policy and oversight for TVA. "Gallatin is a well-maintained and efficient plant and we need that generation for Middle Tennessee."

Over the past two years, TVA idled 18 of the 59 coal-fired units it operated when the EPA and environmental groups sued TVA to limit air pollution from the coal-fired plants. Under a consent order TVA reached with EPA, four states and environmental groups including the Sierra Club, TVA shut down coal units at its Widows Creek, John Sevier and Johnsonville Fossil Plants. TVA also agreed to either install scrubbers or idle other units at its Colbert and Widows Creek plants in Alabama, the Allen and Gallatin plants in Tennessee and the Shawnee plant in Kentucky.

But among the aging plants TVA is still deciding whether to repair or close, Gallatin was the best and most needed, Hoagland said.

Gallatin, which was built in 1953, is capable of producing enough power for 480,000 homes. The plant burns 13,000 tons of coal a day.

TVA completed an environmental assessment of its options for Gallatin in March. That study found that adding the pollution control measures at Gallatin was the best choice, Hoagland said. But the study also recommended -- and TVA agreed to undertake -- the relocation of a facility that raises endangered freshwater mussels near the plant.

TVA will spend up to $700,000 to relocate the Cumberland River Aquatic Center, located on the Tennessee River and operated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Hoagland said TVA agreed to move the center across the river channel where water temperatures and conditions are better for the mussels.

The Tennessee River is home to 129 species of freshwater mussels, including nearly a dozen on the endangered species list.

Environmental groups threatened to sue TVA if the center was not moved.

Although TVA agreed to pay to relocate the aquatic center, environmental leaders still said they were disappointed the utility didn't push for more energy efficiency and renewable energy sources to allow TVA to shut down Gallatin.

"TVA ignored better, cleaner options for powering Tennessee," said Louise Gorenflo, lead volunteer with Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "While leading utilities across the country are replacing their old coal plants with clean energy solutions, saving their customers money and cleaning the air in the process, TVA is taking a major step back by doubling down on a plant that's over 50 years old."

But upgrading Gallatin will allow the plant to run for another 20 years, Hoagland said. During construction of the pollution equipment, 900 jobs will be created.

Hoagland said TVA will use a new Integrated Resource Plan to begin later this year to determine which coal plants may be idled and which will receive additional investments in pollution controls.

TVA already has invested more than $5.4 billion since the 1970s to cut its smog emissions to more than 80 percent.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com