TVA to move away from coal even under Trump

Since shutting down the last coal-fired generators at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant last October, TVA has capped the former coal storage pile and is preparing to demolish the plant facilities. TVA began building Widows Creek in 1950 and the first began power generation at the plant near Stevenson, Ala., in 1952. Google plans to use part of the Widows Creek site for a $600 million data center.
photo Barges are secured in place to be unloaded on the Tennessee River at Widows Creek Fossil Plant near Stevenson, Alabama.

President-elect Donald Trump may roll back carbon limits and other environmental regulations on electric utilities, but the Tennessee Valley Authority is still moving away from coal-fired power generation.

The federal utility, which two decades ago derived more than two-thirds of its electricity from burning coal, expects to get less than a fourth of its power from coal next year and only 15 percent of its generation from coal a decade from now.

Trump has pledged to bring back the coal industry and limit what he says are costly regulations on coal mining and power generation, including the Clean Power Plan proposed by President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency last year but delayed by a Supreme Court stay on its implementation.

TVA CEO Bill Johnson says the utility will continue moving toward meeting the carbon-reduction targets of the Clean Power Plan as it retires aging coal plants and replaces them with lower-carbon natural gas-fired power plants and more wind, solar and nuclear power.

"We have been following a path that is consistent with the direction of the Clean Power Plan, but we've been following it based on what's the best for our customers, and they happen to line up," Johnson told analysts and reporters on a recent conference call. "We really have been following the plan that says if we modernize the fleet as we diversify, what is the best economic and rate path to follow? And that's really what we will continue to do in every decision we make."

TVA has already shuttered 24 of the 59 coal-fired units the utility once operated, including all eight units at its Widows Creek Fossil plant and all five units at the Colbert Fossil plant, both in Alabama, and four units at the John Sevier plant near Rogersville, Tenn. TVA reached a settlement with environmental groups in the EPA five years ago

So far, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy estimates TVA has already met 88 percent of the Clean Power Plan requirements to reduce carbon emissions in the seven states where TVA operates. TVA is building new gas-fired generators to replace coal units at both its Allen Fossil plant in Memphis and its Paradise Fossil plant in Kentucky.

The completion of the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor near Spring City earlier this year, the addition of Alabama's largest solar farm to TVA's grid this fall, and a planned 450-megawatt upgrade of the output from the three Browns Ferry nuclear reactors in coming years should further reduce TVA's carbon footprint.

TVA officials have said they don't expect meeting the Clean Power Plan targets will push up electricity rates more than they might otherwise increase, although critics of the plan have suggested that carbon limits will end up costing customers more in their monthly electric bills.

Hal Quinn, president of the industry-backed National Mining Association, estimated last year that Tennessee electricity rates could rise by 18 percent under the EPA proposal for carbon restrictions in the Clean Power Plan.

"Replacing more affordable sources of electricity with costlier and less reliable ones means EPA's Clean Power Plan will become the Costly Power Plan," Quinn said.

But Amanda Garcia, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said TVA doesn't foresee such increases and she applauded Gov. Bill Haslam for not joining in the legal fight against the Clean Power Plan.

"This is a victory for reality over rhetoric," she said. "By focusing on complying, rather than complaining, the state will save taxpayer money that would have otherwise been spent on a long and complicated lawsuit. Now the administration can wisely devote its limited resources to coming up with a plan that benefits all Tennesseans."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340