TVA urged to be leader in Biden's new deal to fight global climate change

Should infrastructure plans push federal utility toward no-carbon future?

Staff File Photo / The Paradise Fossil Plant near Drakesboro, Kentucky shut down last year. TVA has closed more than half of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which helped boost the energy and income of impoverished southern Appalachia as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression, is being called upon again to be a leader in President Biden's new deal to fight the threat of global climate change.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a leading environmental group in the Tennessee Valley, is urging TVA to lead the utility industry by converting entirely to carbon-free electricity generation within the next decade.

"We believe that the Tennessee Valley Authority, because it is a federal corporation that was built with renewable power from the Tennessee River in the 1930s, is the right utility to lead by example again in getting to a zero-carbon profile ahead of the industry," said Stephen Smith, executive director for the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "TVA needs to again be a leader and set the goal of being first and fastest to get to zero carbon emissions by 2030."

Smith said TVA was a leader in the first half of the 20th century in harnessing the power of the Tennessee River to electrify the Tennessee Valley and lift the region out of poverty with everything from fertilizer research to flood control and recreational development. The federal utility is ideally suited to again lead by example in the early 21st century by moving away from fossil fuels to produce electricity, Smith said.

The Biden White House is rolling out its plans this week for infrastructure spending plans that could cost nearly $3 trillion to improve transportation, transmission and communications and improve electric recharging facilities and renewable energy technologies. The sweeping package is designed to boost the economy, make America more efficient and lessen global warming caused by growing carbon emissions from power plants, cars and other burning of fossil fuels.

On Monday, the Biden administration said it was taking initial steps toward approving a huge wind farm off the New Jersey coast as part of an effort to generate electricity for more than 10 million homes nationwide by 2030. White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy said the project could mean jobs for more than 44,000 workers and avoid 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year.

President Joe Biden "believes we have an enormous opportunity in front of us to not only address the threats of climate change, but use it as a chance to create millions of good-paying, union jobs that will fuel America's economic recovery," she said.

In the Tennessee Valley, environmental groups want TVA to take advantage of infrastructure investments in America's grid to bring more wind and solar power into the Tennessee Valley from places like the Great Plains, which Smith called "the Saudi Arabia of wind power." In 2017, TVA rejected an offer to import up to 3,500 megawatts of wind power from Texas and Oklahoma along a $2.5 billion transmission line proposed by Clean Line Energy in Houston.

Despite turning down such renewable power, TVA has cut its carbon emissions by more than 60% since 2005 by shutting down more than half of the 59 coal-fired power plants it once operated, including the Widows Creek and Colbert plants in Alabama, the John Sevier and Allen coal plants in Tennessee and the Paradise Fossil plant in Kentucky. TVA plans to shut down its Bull Run Fossil Plant near Oak Ridge by 2023.

To replace the lost coal generation, TVA has boosted its nuclear power output, which now supplies 42% of its electricity, and added more natural gas-fired plants to its power portfolio along with scattered solar farms across the Tennessee Valley.

Maggie Shober, director of utility reform at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said gas-fired plants produce about half as much carbon emissions as coal plants but are not a long-term answer to the challenges of climate change. Shober and other environmentalists want TVA to restore the programs it once offered to spur more energy conservation in the Valley and to turn to more renewable energy sources like wind and solar to power the Valley.

"We think there are cost-effective ways that ensure the reliability of TVA's power supply that don't rely upon burning fossil fuels," she said.

As solar and wind continue to grow, their costs are getting cheaper, Shober said.

Smith said all energy options should be on the table, including consideration of new technologies like small modular reactors which TVA is pursuing to possibly build on the Clinch River in Oak Ridge. Smith said new nuclear plants have not proven to be cost effective or able to be built in a reasonable time period of time in the past two decades, but TVA contends that small modular reactors could be built for less cost due to the modular design and smaller size.

TVA CEO Jeff Lyash told a Senate committee last week that he thinks more nuclear power will be needed to achieve zero-carbon emissions in the utility industry and he insists that the existing fleet of nuclear plants could operate safely for up to 100 years, providing relatively low-cost power over the long run.

Lyash said TVA and the local power companies in its 7-state region are planning to add about 1,000 megawatts a year of new solar generation and most of TVA's coal plants are likely to be phased out over the next decade or two. While Lyash has spoken about possibly achieving a 70% or even 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, TVA has not set any formal goals for additional carbon cuts.

Smith said the Biden administration as part of its infrastructure program and the president's appointments to the 9-member TVA board should use TVA as a national model and push the utility toward zero-carbon emissions as soon as possible.

"TVA needs to quit looking in the rearview mirror at where it has already gone and look to its future by setting an ambitious goal that would give the agency an important role for the future," Smith said.

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