TVA's decision Thursday to retire, sideline, clean up or convert to cleaner fuel a large number of its oldest, dirtiest coal-fired generating units as part of a major new commitment to cleaner energy and clearer, healthier air marks some of the best news from the nation's largest electric utility in years.
It holds the promise of a far healthier environment in the Tennessee Valley. It comes with a fresh and badly needed focus on energy efficiency. And it confirms a dramatic, forward-looking shift in the direction and operational goals of the agency's leadership.
Indeed, the latest agreement, which undergirds TVA's new 20-year energy plan and settles years of lawsuits and legal haggling with the EPA, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, came at TVA's own initiative under the leadership of Tom Kilgore, the agency's president and CEO.
The turn in policy is remarkable given the defensive, status-quo agency Kilgore inherited after decades of contentious regulatory battles that needlessly stalled the installation of scrubbers and filters on what were some of the country's worse sources of air pollution. For years, the smog from such pollution has slowly killed forests in the Smokies, stunted crops, acidified lakes and streams, clouded vistas and choked the breath and health of the agency's ratepayers, contributing to a variety of pulmonary and heart diseases.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's remarks on TVA's new policy suggests the significance of TVA's decision on the health of residents in the Tennessee Valley. Its new cleaner generation policies, she said, would prevent - each year - an estimated 3,000 premature deaths, 2,000 heart attacks, 21,000 asthma attacks and 39,000 cases of respiratory illnesses, in addition to wide-ranging benefits in the general environment. Kilgore, acknowledging the obvious, correctly called the agreement "the right thing to do."
Under the pact, TVA over the next five years will retire 18 smaller units at three plants, representing a generating capacity 2,700 megawatts. At other dirty plants representing an additional 5,000 megawatts of power production, it will either idle units, or convert them to cleaner fuel sources like natural gas, or install state-of-the-art emission control systems.
To put the decision in perspective, TVA's coal generating units - a total of 59 units at 11 plants - provide 17,000 megawatts of power, half of the utility's 34,000-megawatt capacity. Units that are idled rather than retired are maintained, but not regularly used.
The agreement essentially commits TVA to focus more of its generating capacity on cleaner energy and alternative fuels and renewable energy. But the agency is also promising to beef up energy conservation and energy efficiency programs aimed at reducing consumption of electricity, and to incorporate load management and rate structures designed to shift power off-peak. Both would help hold down the generating capacity it needs to build or maintain.
The cost savings from such efficiencies could be enormous. A vigorous energy efficiency effort, in fact, might help TVA avoid the need to build new nuclear reactors, which cost billions of dollars apiece.
At the least, the new policy represents a more innovative long-term vision and broader respect for the environment and ratepayers' health and quality of life. If TVA nurtures that mindset, more ratepayers will respect its decisions going forward.