TVA ahead of most utilities on decarbonization but not keeping pace for future with some neighbors

The Tennessee Valley Authority led most utilities in decarbonizing its electricity generation in the past decade, but a new study suggests the federal utility will likely move slower than many of its neighbors in the future in cutting greenhouse gases linked with global warming.

In a 31-page assessment of the utilities' pollution and carbon emissions, released Thursday, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy chided TVA for trading one fossil fuel for another and for failing to take enough steps to meet President Joe Biden's call for a carbon-free utility industry by 2035.

TVA is projecting it will cut its overall carbon emissions by 80% below the utility's 2005 peak levels by 2035, but at the current rate of reductions, the utility is projected not to be completely carbon-free until 2092.

(READ MORE: TVA is ahead of most utilities in carbon cuts, but growing economy slices share of clean power)

TVA has shut down more than half of the 59 coal-fired generating units it once operated and plans to phase out the last of its coal units by 2035. Natural gas plants have helped cut carbon emissions by more than half compared to the less efficient coal plants they replace and have aided TVA in trimming its overall carbon emissions by more than 60% since 2005. But the new gas plants continue to emit carbon, albeit at a lower level.

Decarbonizing electric generation

Annual pace of carbon reductions 2010 to 2020:1. TVA, down 9.2%2. Southern Co., down 4.8%3. Duke Energy, down 4.8%4. Dominion in South Carolina, down 3.5%5. Next Era, down 2.5%Annual pace of carbon reductions 2020 to 2030:1. Southern Co., down 2.4%2. Dominion in South Carolina, down 2.4%3. NextEra, down 2.3%4. TVA, down 1.7%5. Duke Energy, no changeSource: “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast,” Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

The new report said scientists say such greenhouse gases help heat up the planet and contribute to global warming blamed for some storms and rising sea levels.

(READ MORE: Wagner sworn in as TVA's new inspector general and more business news)

"Electric utilities in the Southeast need to decarbonize quickly by switching from fossil fuels to clean energy that emits zero CO2 emissions," said Maggie Shober, research director and author of the study for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Knoxville. "Continued investment in fossil fuels for electricity generation puts utility customers at risk of higher energy bills both in the immediate future and throughout the transition to clean energy and electrification."

In the decade from 2010 to 2020, TVA cut its carbon emissions by an average of 9.2% a year, or more than double the utility average in the Southeast, the Southern Alliance study showed. But in the decade from 2020 to 2030, TVA's projected annual drop in carbon output of 1.7% trails nearly all of its neighboring utilities.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Valley Authority whistleblowers sue agency in federal court)

"TVA was one of the most coal-heavy utilities (with over two-thirds of its electricity generated in the 1980s from coal), and they have done a lot to reduce those emissions by shutting down many of its coal units," Shober said in a phone interview Thursday. "But we do see a real decline in the rate of decarbonization based upon the current trajectory. We don't see TVA being a leader in the Southeast from here on out unless there is a big shift coming out of TVA's integrated resource plan in 2023."

The report on carbon emissions by utilities said TVA, as an independent government-owned utility, doesn't have the same shareholder pressure that, at least in part, has driven other large utilities in the region to set corporate carbon reduction goals.

But in January 2021, shortly after becoming president, Biden issued an executive order that initiated a "governmentwide" effort to achieve "a carbon pollution-free electricity sector no later than 2035." TVA continues to say it aspires to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 and has set an aspirational goal of being carbon free by 2035.

TVA President Jeff Lyash said the federal utility is moving as quickly as it can to a carbon-free generation mix while still maintaining relatively low rates and high power reliability.

"We recognize the urgency - and TVA is uniquely positioned to lead in developing solutions that will deliver a carbon-free energy future," Lyash said in TVA's most recent sustainability report.

Lyash said TVA is pursuing small modular reactors to gain more carbon-free nuclear power and is participating in research on carbon sequestration and other new technologies. TVA also is planning to build or purchase at least 10,000 megawatts of solar power in the next two decades.

But the Southern Alliance study said other utilities will soon bypass TVA in their overall carbon reductions.

Next Era, the parent company of Florida Power & Light and other electric utilities, recently adopted a plan to become completely carbon free by 2045, according to the new decarbonization study.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-634. Follow on Twitter at @dflessner1.

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