TVA's carbon cuts outpace most national utilities

The Tennessee Valley Authority building in downtown Chattanooga is shown in 2016. / Staff file photo

In its first corporate sustainability report, the Tennessee Valley Authority says it is on pace to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions linked with global warming by 70% below 2005 levels by 2030.

By boosting power generation from carbon-free generation at at nuclear, hydro and solar facilities and replacing aging coal-fired plants with combined-cycle natural gas generators, TVA has already cut its carbon output by 60% in the past decade and a half and is planning on adding more solar generation in coming years to cut even more greenhouse gas emissions.

"I think TVA is a true sustainability leader, particularly because of our public power model and our history," said Rebecca Tolene, TVA chief sustainability officer. "We are embarking now on a great change that is coming in the energy field and I think we're well positioned to help communities throughout the region to meet their sustainability goals."

TVA's carbon cuts helped Chattanooga to reduce its carbon footprint by more than 25% in the past decade even with a population gain of more than 14% and a 44% jump in economic output in the Scenic city.

Tolene said the sustainability report that tallied 2019 performance metrics will serve as a baseline for annual updates by the federal utility. The report offers the public a more transparent, accessible look at the impact of TVA's everyday activities by compiling information from two other sustainability-related documents – the Federal Sustainability Report and Implementation Plan, and the Environmental, Social, and Governance Sustainability Report, a utility-focused and investor-driven reporting template, Tolene said.

Tolene said TVA's carbon footprint in 2019 of 742 pounds of carbon per megawatthour of electricity was well below the annual average calculated by EPA in 2018 among all electric utilities of 947 pounds per megawatthour. The Southeast, where utilities still rely more upon burning coal for power generation, had a regional average of 1,032 pounds per megawatt in 2018, according to EPA.

Tolene estimates that TVA has cut the carbon footprint this year to about 520 pounds per megawatthour of electricity produced.

TVA has shut down most of the 59 coal-fired generators it once operated and now gets over 40% of its power from its seven operating nuclear reactors in Tennessee and Alabama and about 10% of its power from its 29 power-producing dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries.

"We are ahead of the industry in greenhouse gas reductions," TVA President Jeff Lyash told the Tennessee Valley Corridor virtual summit on Thursday. "Today, since 2005, we have reduced carbon emissions by 60%. We anticipate a 70% reduction by 2030 and we're targeting an 80% reduction by 2040."

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee Valley Authority President Jeffrey Lyash

Lyash said TVA is now looking at ways with new technology to eliminate the other 20% of carbon emissions still coming from the burning of coal, natural gas and diesel fuel in some generators.

Although TVA has trailed other utilities in its solar power generation, TVA has put nearly 2,000 megawatts of solar into the pipeline and the utility's integrated resource plan adopted last year calls for up to 14 gigawatts of solar power in the next two decades, Lyash said.

Nonetheless, a study done for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy last month labeled TVA "a solar blocker" for cutting its incentives for individual consumers to install solar panels. TVA cut what it pays to buy such power this year to better reflect market values, but neighboring states are offering richer incentives to installing solar units for distributed power generation.

TVA said its residential rates are among the lowest 30% in the country and its industrial rates are among the bottom 10% of all U.S. utilities. Cheaper fuel costs and operating improvements have helped TVA keep the delivered cost of power relatively unchanged for the past four years and TVA has pledged to keep its power rates stable for the next decade.

"That came through a reduction in operating and maintenance expense by focusing on efficiency, deploying technology and investments in our generating resources that lowered our fuel costs by more than $1 billion so today we start from a position of low and stable rates," Lyash said. "Our financial plan for the next 10 years is to maintain those rates as flat and we believe we have every opportunity to do just that. This is important because it makes this region more economically competitive."

TVA was created to harness the power of the Tennessee River and the utility was granted authority to control the river flow and help in water quality, aquatic life management and shoreline protection, including about 293,000 acres that TVA manages. After three years of record rains in the Tennessee Valley, TVA estimates its flood control efforts have averted $1.8 billion of flood damages along the Tennessee River, including over $1 billion of savings in Chattanooga.

Lyash said maintaining the lake levels, water quality and shorelines along the 652-mile Tennessee River has helped to serve both the recreational and navigational opportunities of the river.

"That river system brings to the Valley over $12 billion a year of economic activity, recreation and the like," Lyash said.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.