TVA is ahead of most utilities in carbon cuts, but growing economy slices share of clean power

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

The Tennessee Valley Authority remains a leader among U.S. utilities in reducing its carbon and other greenhouse emissions linked with climate change, but the share of electricity TVA generated from carbon-free sources declined last year as power demand rebounded from the pandemic, according to a new report.

In its annual sustainability report for 2021 released this week, TVA said it reduced its carbon emissions by 57% below the levels in 2005 when the Paris Agreement was negotiated setting a global framework to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming.

But during 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions limited economic activity and power demand shrunk, TVA said its carbon output was down 63% from the 2005 level

"That [decline in the share of carbon-free generation] reflects an upswing in the economy and the load growth that we saw," Rebecca Tolene, chief sustainability officer at TVA, said in an interview with the Times Free Press.

As power demand rebounded last year by 4.6% above the pandemic lows in 2020, TVA turned more to the burning of fossil fuels to meet higher power peaks.

Tolene said TVA is still moving ahead to cut its carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 and by 80% by 2035 by phasing out the last of the 59 coal-fired generators TVA once operated when the federal utility derived nearly two-thirds of its power from the burning of coal.

"We are positioned to lead the industry in creating a sustainable energy future – one we have been actively advancing for nearly 90 years," TVA President Jeff Lyash said in an introduction to TVA's new sustainability report. "TVA is a recognized leader in pioneering cost-effective technologies that will help enable us to achieve our aspiration of a net-zero carbon energy future."

Lyash said TVA is focused on cutting its carbon output while maintaining both cheap and reliable power. Lyash said lower-cost power by TVA has helped propel the manufacturing of more electric vehicles in Tennessee, which is helping to electrify the transportation sector and reduce carbon emissions as gas-powered cars are replaced with battery-powered vehicles.

TVA's renewable roots

TVA was created in 1933 to harness the renewable power of the Tennessee River, and TVA's 29 hydroelectric dams continue to supply more than 10% of TVA's power. But in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, TVA built a fleet of coal power plants and later added seven nuclear reactors to meet its growing power load.

TVA has set a goal of building 10,000 megawatts of solar generation, but the utility is also turning more to natural gas to help supply power when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Natural gas plants emit about 60% less carbon than the coal plants they are replacing, Tolene said.

"Natural gas is really in an enabler as we develop more renewable generation," she said. "To be able to develop 10,000 megawatts of solar, we need more natural gas to balance that out, at least until we have better power storage technologies."

Carbon emissions from new natural gas plants also may include carbon sequestration technologies to avoid CO2 emissions from such generation.

Tolene said "sustainability really underlies everything we do" and showcases TVA's battle against climate change.

Less gas, more conservation

But some environmental groups and members of Congress want TVA to do more to fight climate change by phasing out all fossil fuel generation, including natural gas, and doing more to promote energy conservation. President Joe Biden has set a goal of making America's electric grid carbon free by 2035, but TVA's objective for carbon reduction achieves only 80% of that target by 2035.

A study by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy found that TVA does less than most Southern utilities to promote energy efficiency or to incentivize residential solar or wind power generation.

House Energy Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., questioned why TVA cut back on its energy conservation incentives given the higher energy use in so many households in the Tennessee Valley.

"Despite TVA's acknowledgments that energy efficiency is critical to achieving a least-cost energy mix, public reports indicate the federal utility reduced funding for its energy efficiency programs by nearly two-thirds between 2014 and 2018 and eliminated its energy efficiency customer incentive programs," Pallone said in a letter to TVA earlier this year. "As a result, TVA's annual energy savings from energy efficiency dropped from 512,084 megawatt-hours in 2014 to just 101,138 megawatt-hours in 2020."

TVA said in its newest sustainability report that in the past decade it has installed 1,600 megawatts of new nuclear capacity – the most of any utility in the nation - while boosting solar capacity by 1,600 megawatts and pledging to retire another 8,600 megawatts of coal capacity by the end of 2023. TVA plans to spend another $400 million to promote energy efficiency.

TVA also is providing more flexibility to encourage the 153 local power companies that distribute TVA power to develop more of their own community and rooftop solar and wind generation.

"We're not just focused on our own operations," Tolene said. "We're on the forefront of technology advancements and solutions. It's really about these regional partnerships."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340

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