TVA begins steps to shut down its biggest coal plant

But building gas plants to replace power faces environmental opposition

The Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville, Tenn., is shown in this 2002 file photo. (AP Photo/TVA, Ron Schmitt)
The Tennessee Valley Authority's Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville, Tenn., is shown in this 2002 file photo. (AP Photo/TVA, Ron Schmitt)

America's biggest public utility has initiated the process of shutting down its largest coal power plant as the first step toward phasing out all of its remaining coal-fired generation by 2035.

The Tennessee Valley Authority this week began the public scoping process to gain public input into whether the Cumberland Fossil Plant should be shut down, beginning within five years, and how TVA should make up for the electricity it generates. The two-unit coal plant in Cumberland City has supplied power to TVA since 1972 and is capable of meeting the power needs of about 1 million homes in the Tennessee Valley.

"TVA's recent evaluation confirms that the aging coal fleet is among the oldest in the nation and is experiencing deterioration of material condition and performance challenges," TVA said in a notice of its intent to consider closing the Cumberland plant. "The performance challenges are projected to increase because of the coal fleet's advancing age and the difficulty of adapting the fleet's generation within the changing generation profile; and, in general, because the coal fleet is contributing to environmental, economic, and reliability risks."

TVA is proposing to retire one of the Cumberland units as early as 2026 and no later than 2030 and to shut down the other unit by 2033. TVA has set a goal of cutting its total carbon emissions by 80% below the 2005 levels by 2035 by phasing out the last of the 59 coal-fired units TVA once operated.

TVA generated nearly two thirds of its power from coal in the 1980s, but it has already shut down coal-fired units it once operated, including closing its Widows Creek, Colbert, John Sevier, Allen, Paradise and Johnsonville coal plants in the past decade. TVA is preparing to shutter its Bull Run Fossil plant by 2023 and, subject to environmental studies and board approval, is planning to ultimately shut down its Cumberland, Gallatin, Kingston and Shawnee coal plants by 2035.

TVA President Jeff Lyash told the TVA board last week the utility will begin a similar public scoping process for its Kingston fossil plant by July.

"It makes sense to start with our largest plant as we work to decarbonize TVA," said Scott Brooks, a spokesman for TVA.

What do you think of TVA's plans?

TVA will host a virtual public open house on Thursday, May 27, starting at 5:30 p.m., central time, to discuss the options for the Cumberland Fossil Plant and provide an opportunity to submit comments. Interested persons may register at for the live online event. Written comments on the scope of the environmental impact study will be accepted through June 10, 2021. Comments can be submitted online at, or by email to Comments received, including names and addresses, will become part of the project administrative record and will be available for public inspection.

In its preliminary notice, TVA said it will consider the alternatives of making upgrades to Cumberland and other fossil plants to continue their operation or to replace the power such units now generate with either 1,450 megawatts of high-efficiency combined-cycle natural gas plants or renewable fuels such as solar and wind.

The proposed gas plants, which could either be built on site at the Cumberland plant or elsewhere in TVA's 7-state service region, would emit far less carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions than the coal units they replace. Lyash said the gas plants can be easily fired up or shut down to meet intermittent power demands or peak demand periods when consumption is high but the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow to power solar panels and windmills.

But environmental groups want TVA to get rid of power generation from the burning of any fossil fuel that emits carbon and other greenhouse gases.

"The decision by TVA to replace one fossil fuel with another locks the utility into gas for decades," says Keith Johnston, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center's Birmingham office. "TVA did not properly consider other energy resources, such as energy efficiency, renewables and demand response programs, that could alleviate this need for more fossil fuels."

In comments jointly submitted by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Energy Alabama, the environmental groups claim that building more gas-fired electricity is costly, endangers public health and ignores the urgent need for action to combat climate change.

President Joe Biden has set a goal of zero-carbon emissions from America's electric industry by 2035, but TVA's plan would fall short of meeting that target.

"With its mission to serve the environment and economy of the Tennessee Valley, as well as a directive from the President to decarbonize the grid and to promote environmental justice, TVA is well positioned to lead the national response to the world's climate crisis," the groups said in a letter to TVA. "Yet the utility's plan to build new gas power plants balks at that opportunity, proposing to accelerate climate change during the narrow moment remaining to mitigate its worst effects."

TVA plans to develop a draft environmental impact statement on its future options for the Cumberland coal plant later this year and a final recommendation about the plant's future could come before the TVA board for action next year.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340

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