Weekend electricity outages across Tennessee Valley spark power battle over TVA’s future

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

Last week's power outages across the Tennessee Valley are energizing a power battle over the future of America's biggest government utility.

Environmentalists claim the Tennessee Valley Authority still relies too much on fossil fuels, citing the failure of TVA's biggest coal plant and several natural gas-fired combustion turbines during the frigid weather Friday and Saturday when TVA imposed rolling blackouts to its customers for the first time.

But supporters of such fuels insist the shortfall in power for TVA last week underscores the need for the federal utility to maintain a diverse portfolio of generation. 

Although TVA has maintained 99.999% power reliability for more than 20 years as one of the nation's most dependable electric utilities, TVA interrupted its power to local power companies across its seven-state region last week. TVA first ordered local power customers to cut 5% of their load Friday for about two hours and renewed that appeal early Saturday morning. Later on the day before Christmas, TVA directed all local power companies to cut their load by 10%, forcing power outages across TVA's entire seven-state service region including rolling blackouts by EPB in Chattanooga for the first time in its 87-year history.

Last week as temperatures fell into the single digits on the coldest days in the Tennessee Valley in nearly a decade, TVA's power demand jumped near its all-time record high, according to preliminary power data tracked by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Cold weather pushed up electricity use in TVA's seven-state region where more than 60% of homes are heated by electricity.

But much of the problem in meeting the peak demand stemmed from the loss of power generation during the winter storm from TVA's biggest coal plant and from the failure of some of TVA's natural gas combustion turbines as well as the loss of power purchased from independent power producers.

TVA Chief Operating Officer Don Moul is heading an investigation of the problems that led to the power outages last week. Moul said in a telephone interview that high winds damaged several of TVA's protective structures at the Cumberland plant and several gas-fired combustion turbines used for such peak power periods. TVA's directive to local power companies to cut some of their energy use was the most efficient means to respond to the inadequate energy supply, Moul said.

"We're always trying to provide reliable power, even under these extreme conditions," he said. "Sometimes, it requires TVA and its local power companies to take these proactive steps to make sure that the power grid remains stable."

In a conference call with elected officials Saturday reported by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, TVA President and CEO Jeff Lyash promised a full investigation of the power problems and acknowledged TVA didn't do as well as it should have to communicate with its customers about the power crunch.

"It is TVA's very objective and that of our local power companies, each and every one of those 153 local power companies, never to interrupt your power," Lyash said during the conference call. "That's what we strive for. And occasionally we fall short of that. And, obviously, we fell short of that, in this case."

The rolling blackouts cut off power sometimes for hours in the Tennessee Valley, leaving many in the dark and cold and disrupting some holiday celebrations and even delaying the start of the Tennessee Titans game on Christmas Eve.

Audrey Meredith, who lives in Sweetwater, Tennessee, said her power was cut off twice Saturday morning.

"I have several members of my family with frozen water pipes," she said in an email to the Times Free Press. "Why would anyone in their right mind decide it is a GOOD idea to have rolling blackouts today? First of all, it is a whopping 5 degrees outside and second, it is Christmas Eve ... This is ridiculous."

TVA officials say they had to impose rolling blackouts to protect the power grid when electricity demand exceeded what TVA was able to either generate or purchase from other power producers.

TVA's seven nuclear reactors, which supply about 40% of TVA's electricity, remained online through the power crunch along with most of TVA's hydroelectric dams. But TVA's biggest coal plant -- the two-unit Cumberland Fossil Plant in Middle Tennessee -- shut down because of weather-related equipment failures and overall coal-fired generation in the Tennessee region tracked by the U.S. Energy Information Administration fell by more than 68% from 4,482 megawatts early Friday to only 1,426 megawatts during the cold weather Saturday morning.

Energy Information Administration data showed net power generation by TVA fell about 7,000 megawatts short of demand around midday Friday. TVA was generating about 23,000 megawatts and needed more than 30,000.

  photo  Meters track the electric generation from solar panels at Dennis Kaech's home in Olympia, Washington, on Dec. 18, 2012. (Tony Overman/The Olympian/MCT)
 
 

DEBATE OVER NATURAL GAS

During the power crunch, some of the natural gas generation TVA had counted on also didn't come through due to equipment and delivery problems, according to TVA.

"Fossil fuels are not the answer, and the new (TVA) board needs time to assess the failures," said Amy Kelly, the Tennessee representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

In a statement over the weekend, Kelly urged TVA not to proceed with the recommendations of an environmental assessment to replace the Cumberland Fossil Plant with natural gas-fired combined cycle plants until the six new directors for the TVA board have had a chance to study the issue.

Last week, the U.S. Senate confirmed six new directors for the nine-member TVA board. The new board members are scheduled to be sworn into office to oversee TVA beginning in January.

Earlier this year, the TVA board members appointed by former President Donald Trump delegated the authority to decide on the future of the Cumberland site to Lyash, who could soon authorize the start of more gas plants on the Cumberland site.

"TVA's CEO Lyash does not need to move forward with a massive new gas plant decision at Cumberland as early as Jan. 9 when we just learned the mandatory blackouts were due to coal and gas failures," Kelly said. "This decision should not be rushed without any oversight."

But assuring reliable power delivery is why the new gas plants are needed, according to a yearlong environmental review of the options for the Cumberland plant.

"Natural gas is needed to produce power during early morning winter peaks or during overcast or rainy days," Jacinda Woodward, senior vice president of TVA Power Operations, said in a statement about the Cumberland Environmental Review. "Natural gas provides the flexibility needed to reliably integrate renewables. Battery storage technology doesn't currently provide the output duration needed to support system needs when solar is unavailable."


GREEN POWER CRUNCH?

Others are urging TVA to reverse its decision to phase out all coal-fired power generation by 2035, claiming that rising demand requires TVA to use all forms of generation including coal, natural gas and even diesel, in addition to nuclear, renewables and energy efficiency measures.

In response to energy shortages triggered by the war in Ukraine, Britain is reactivating some of its coal power plants and keeping others running longer to maintain electricity supplies this winter.

In a Facebook post about TVA's power outages last week, Chattanooga homeowner Jack Sokohl questioned if "TVA's concentration and emphasis on the Biden administration's green energy mandates" will leave the federal utility vulnerable to more power shortfalls.

"More power failures on the way thanks to lack of attention and maintenance on traditional power sources," Sokohl predicted in his Facebook post.

TVA once operated 59 coal-fired units that collectively generated a majority of TVA's electricity. But the share of coal generation for TVA has fallen to only about 19% today and will phase out altogether by 2035. Most of TVA's coal plants were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and TVA has determined it is too expensive to continue to run the aging plants while complying with today's stricter environmental rules.

Lyash calls natural gas "a bridge fuel" needed until new nuclear plants, battery storage, carbon capture and renewable fuels are developed to help replace TVA's aging fleet of coal plants. Gas plants can be quickly activated to meet peak power demands and operate even when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, Lyash said in an interview with the Times Free Press earlier this year.

But other environmental groups claim last week's power outages underscore the need for more investments in solar and wind generation, which currently account for less than 3% of TVA's power portfolio. None of TVA's solar or wind generators were reported to be offline because of the freezing weather, but the solar panels also don't generate power when the sun doesn't shine.

TVA also gets nearly 11% of its power from its 29 hydroelectric dams, boosting its total share of renewable power to about 14% in the past year. But TVA's share of renewable power is only about 63% of the U.S. average share of renewable power in 2022. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates about 22% share of electricity now comes from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro generation.


TVA LAGS IN ENERGY EFFICIENCY

TVA has also been criticized for cutting back on its investments aiding customers with energy conservation measures. A study by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy found TVA spends only about 10% as much as the national average on loans, grants and rebate programs to encourage energy efficiency.

In the 1970s under then-chairman S. David Freeman, TVA launched an aggressive energy conservation program to provide loans and rebates for energy-efficient heat pumps, appliances and home upgrades. But TVA discontinued most of its efficiency rebate programs after 2018.

As a result, the environmental study said residential customers in Tennessee, on average, consume nearly 25% more electricity than the national average.

Lyash said TVA still provides free energy audits and targeted grant assistance in low-income areas. He said electricity usage is higher in Tennessee because of the region's climate, less efficient buildings and more manufactured houses and a higher share of households heating and cooling their homes with electricity.

But environmental leaders want TVA and local power companies to do more to help customers insulate their homes and install more efficient appliances and furnaces to help consumers save money and avoid more power outages.

"These rolling blackouts can be dangerous in single-digit weather, especially for people who are medically dependent on electricity," Bri Knisley, the Tennessee campaign manager for Appalachian Voices, said in a statement during the power crunch Saturday. "Widespread investments in energy efficiency are critical for addressing increased demand as climate change causes these extreme weather events to become more frequent."


COLD WEATHER SETS POWER RECORDS

The arctic blast that hit the Tennessee Valley Friday and Saturday set new power demand records for the Tennessee Valley Authority:

— Highest 24-hour electricity demand supplied in TVA history on Friday: 740 gigawatt-hours

— Highest winter peak power demand on Friday: 33,425 megawatts (third highest peak in TVA history)

— Highest weekend peak power demand in TVA history on Saturday: 31,756 megawatts

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority


TVA'S ENERGY MIX

TVA has a total generating capacity of 33,727 megawatts, although the utility also buys power from other producers. The power portfolio includes:

— Nuclear power: 39%

— Natural gas: 26%

— Coal: 19%

— Hydro: 11%

— Solar and wind: 3%

Source: Tennessee Valley Authority

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6340.