The Tennessee Valley Authority may have won a court reprieve this week from having to install pollution controls or shutter the oldest units at its Widows Creek coal plant near Stevenson, Ala.
But the federal utility still may shut down at least one of its oldest boilers at the plant following an unexpected shutdown when the unit was being brought back on line two weeks ago. The Unit 5 generator was damaged on July 14, and TVA crews are still assessing the equipment.
Plant workers are studying whether it still makes sense to repair the 58-year-old unit - one of a half dozen such units that lack pollution controls sought by regulators, TVA officials said.
"They need that cost of repair as a real component to decide what to do next," said Rob Manning, executive vice president of power system operations at TVA. "It takes weeks to figure that out exactly."
At Widows Creek, TVA spokesman Jim Allen said there was no fire or explosion at the Unit 5 generator, similar to other fires at TVA coal plants at John Sevier last December and at Shawnee Fossil Plant Unit 8 in February.
No other Widows Creek units were damaged in the accident, said Allen, but the damage could be severe enough to make repairs too costly to justify keeping the unit in operation.
Last year, a federal judge ordered that TVA install environmental scrubbers on the oldest six units at Widows Creek by 2012 and scrubbers and other upgrades at the John Sevier Fossil Plant near Rogersville, Tenn., by 2011. Emissions from the plants were having a damaging effect across the nearby state line in North Carolina, the judge ruled.
TVA estimates the Widows Creek work will cost $158 million, and John Sevier's will cost more than $308 million. TVA argued that it doesn't have enough time to complete the work at John Sevier by the deadline.
A three-judge appellate court unanimously reversed that ruling Monday, claiming the lower court didn't have the authority to determine that TVA coal plants were a public nuisance to neighboring North Carolina.
"The appellate court ruling struck a hard blow to North Carolina's case against TVA, but I think TVA ultimately only bought a little more time with this decision," said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"Regardless of any appeal, in the long run, the clean air interstate rules and other EPA requirements are going to force TVA to either phase out these old dirty plants or install new pollution control measures," he said.
Smith and other environmentalists want TVA to shut down its oldest and most inefficient coal plants, including the New Johnsonville Fossil Plant in West Tennessee and the oldest six units at Widows Creek.
"With this damage to that unit at Widows Creek, it makes no sense to spend more money to fix what is already a very old and inefficient generator," said Smith.
TVA hasn't shut down any coal units since 1970, when the agency permanently closed the first coal plant TVA ever built near Watts Bar Dam. But that may change.
"For any asset we have that has significant age on it, we want to evaluate the cost of repair and see if we might be better off doing something else," Manning said.
TVA is building a new gas-fired plant at John Sevier that could replace that coal facility.
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