The Tennessee Valley Authority destroyed the cooling towers at one Kentucky coal plant Thursday and began making plans to install a solar farm at its other Kentucky coal plant as America's biggest public utility continues to shift away from what once generated most of its power.
Three giant cooling towers were imploded at the Paradise Fossil Plant near Drakesboro, Kentucky, which TVA shut down nearly three years ago despite opposition from then-President Donald Trump and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wanted TVA to do more to help Kentucky's coal industry.
TVA is retiring its aging coal fleet due to cost and pollution concerns, but utility directors voted Thursday to invest in a project at the Shawnee Fossil Plant in Kentucky to build a solar farm atop the residues of its coal-burning legacy in Kentucky.
During its quarterly meeting Thursday in Starkville, Mississippi, the TVA board authorized spending $216 million for the nation's first-of-its-kind pilot program to determine if closed coal ash sites are suitable for utility-scale solar projects. TVA is planning to build a 100-megawatt solar farm over a covered coal ash disposal site at the Shawnee plant.
If successful, TVA Chief Operating Officer Don Moul said the federal utility hopes to build similar solar arrays at other coal plants where TVA has created landfills and covered storage ponds for its coal ash storage. Moul said up to 1,000 megawatts of such solar generation might be built at TVA coal facilities.
"I would think within two years, maybe sooner, we could have this system online (at Shawnee)," Moul told TVA directors. "This allows us to alleviate some of the land constraint challenges that we've had from so many of our stakeholders about utility-scale solar projects."
The TVA project will cap the coal ash residues with a closure turf system and then attach the solar panels to mounting mechanisms without penetrating the liner installed over the coal ash residues, Moul said.
Solar farms typically take about 10 acres for every megawatt of power generation from the solar panels. TVA has set a goal of ultimately building or buying 10,000 megawatts of solar generation, so building all utility-scale solar could require as much as 100,000 acres for solar panels across TVA's seven-state region.
The project is dubbed Phoenix, which in Greek mythology is an immortal bird that obtains new life from the sun by rising from the ashes of its predecessor.
"This is a new technology that has great potential for us, and we're going to test it and leverage it aggressively," TVA President Jeff Lyash said during Thursday's board meeting. "This project will provide insights into a first-of-its-kind technology and potentially could have applications at other coal sites and landfills."
Moul said the project also will allow TVA to later recover some of the stored coal ash if that proves valuable in the future. Moul said TVA will also explore trying to get federal funding for some of the project through incentives offered under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Environmental groups that have been urging TVA to move away from fossil fuels welcomed TVA's move toward more solar and for trying to tap into potential federal programs for assistance. But Scott Banbury, the conservation program coordinator of the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club, remained concerned about disturbing coal ash residual sites and potentially creating leaks or contamination into the air or water around such sites.
"We're encouraged that TVA recognizes that the Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes direct investment in solar on TVA's own properties," Banbury said in a statement Thursday. "However, capping the unlined, leaking coal ash impoundments outside of the Shawnee Fossil Plant could pose a threat to ground and surface waters."
Banbury urged TVA not to "force communities to choose between clean energy and clean water."
TVA is spending billions of dollars to clean up old coal plants and coal ash storage ponds and landfills.
Cooling on coal
Since the Paradise plant in Kentucky was shut down nearly three years ago, TVA has taken a number of steps to return the site to "brownfield" status by 2030, including Thursday's implosion of the 435-foot-high cooling towers at the site. A portion of the plant property already houses the gas-fired Paradise Combined Cycle Plant, which was added in 2017. TVA is also constructing additional gas-fired combustion turbines at Paradise.
"The decommissioning program directly aligns with TVA's commitment to environmental stewardship and economic development as we execute safe, environmentally sound and cost-effective projects across TVA's power service area," Charles Chappell, general manager of decommissioning for TVA, said in a statement Thursday.
TVA has shut down most of the 59 coal-fired units that it once operated and supplied over 60% of TVA's power a generation ago.
In fiscal 2022, TVA's remaining coal plants at Cumberland, Shawnee, Bull Run and Kingsport supplied about 13% of TVA's total power generation, according to TVA Chief Financial Officer John Thomas.
TVA plans to phase out all of its coal-fired plants by 2035.
The solar development TVA is planning at Shawnee is in addition to the utility's plans to purchase up to 5,000 megawatts of more renewable power. In July, TVA announced one of the biggest requests for renewable energy of any U.S. utility with a request for proposals to purchase solar, wind, pumped storage and advanced nuclear proposals by 2029.
Lyash said TVA has already received proposals from 40 companies that collectively have proposed selling over 14,000 megawatts of renewable energy. Most of the proposals involved solar power, Lyash said.
"We're extremely pleased with the strong market response to the bid request," he said. "Bidders right now are in the process of finalizing their proposals so that TVA can begin the evaluation process. We'll select the projects that enable us to remain a leader in carbon reduction and continue to supply reliable and low-cost power."
TVA has set a goal of reducing its carbon emissions below its 2005 levels by 70% in 2030 and by 80% in 2035. Lyash has set a target for TVA to be carbon neutral by 2050. To achieve its carbon-free goal while electricity demand grows due to more electric vehicles and economic growth in the valley, Lyash said TVA will need a diverse portfolio of energy production, storage and carbon capture.
"The space between execution and aspiration is where innovation lives," Lyash said. "Achieving a net-zero clean energy future is critical to our nation's energy security goals and requires innovative thinking and exploring new technologies. TVA was created as an innovation company and is uniquely positioned to demonstrate these technologies for the rest of the industry -- both in the U.S. and around the world."