TVA's plans to build natural gas plants ignite fiery debate

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / The Tennessee Valley Authority board's public listening session took place Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / The Tennessee Valley Authority board's public listening session took place Wednesday at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

The Tennessee Valley Authority plans to shut down the last of the coal-fired power plants that once supplied most of its power by 2035 as the federal utility moves to a cleaner, carbon-free future.

But while TVA turns more to nuclear, solar and hydro generation, the federal utility also is boosting its use of another fossil fuel to keep the lights on even though many neighbors to the new projects don't like their plans.

During a public hearing Wednesday in Chattanooga, the TVA board heard complaints from environmental activists and landowners who live near areas where the federal utility is proposing new natural gas pipelines. The pipelines would be for planned new gas generators at both the Kingston Fossil Plant near Oak Ridge and Cheatham County near Ashland City, Tennessee.

"TVA's proposal to build a gas plant in Cheatham County caught all of us by surprise, and it is in direct conflict with the wishes of the people they are trying to serve," Will Halsey, one of the speakers opposing TVA's natural gas expansion, said after Wednesday's meeting. "TVA is supposed to be bettering the lives of people in the Valley, and they seemed to be doing exactly the opposite."

TVA bought 285 areas of mostly forested land in Cheatham County northwest of Nashville two years ago and is studying the site to potentially build 900 megawatts to natural gas-fired generation to help meet TVA's growing power demand and offset the loss of coal generation. The Cheatham County project is among 7,000 megawatts of gas plants TVA is building or planing to build across its seven-state region to help meet the growing electricity demands in the region, especially when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow.

Last month, both the Ashland City Council and the Cheatham County Commission adopted resolutions against the new gas plant and the gas pipeline proposed to serve the facility. Ashland council members said in their resolution the proposed gas pipeline and plant could cause "irreparable harm to our community for the possible anticipated environmental impacts."

Near the Kingston Fossil Plant in East Tennessee, Brienna Ortner of the organization Safe, Affordable Good Energy also blasted plans for a gas pipeline on the Upper Cumberland mountains to serve Kingston.

"We are rural community, and we don't want the noise, the methane and the threat to our water system from this pipeline," she said in an interview after the TVA board meeting.

TVA officials insist that the new natural gas plants and pipelines will be cleaner and emit only 40% as many greenhouse gases as the coal plants they are replacing. Natural gas is "a bridge fuel" to generate power during peak demand periods or when renewable sources from solar or wind are not available, TVA President Jeff Lyash said.

"We're seeing growth in our power demand from immigration, from new industry and from the electrification of cars and industry," Lyash said in an interview Wednesday. "Electricity must be clean and reliable, and many of the power peaks we experience are in the cold winter months before the sun rises or after the sun sets. We need this gas when solar is unavailable."

TVA's power demand could double by 2050, requiring the utility to build as much new generation in the next 20 years as it did in is first 90 years, Lyash said.

Local power companies that distribute TVA power recognize that new generation of all types will be needed to keep pace with the growing power load in a region that is growing three times as fast as the U.S. average, said Jarrod Brackett, the general manager for Fort Loudon Electric Cooperative and chair of the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Valley Public Power Association.

"TVA is a world leader in moving toward carbon-free power, but we need to make sure that all generation options are on the table to maintain reliable and low-cost power," Brackett told the TVA board.

But Amy Kelly of the Sierra Club blamed the rolling blackouts last December on unreliable natural gas plants that froze up during Winter Storm Elliott. Kelly questioned why TVA is spending 11 times more on new gas generation than on solar and battery storage, and she asked the TVA board to delay any further investments in natural gas plants and pipelines until a new integrated resource plan is completed by TVA next year.

"The board should not rush to approve a budget that commits us to gas for decades before the IRP process is completed and before the environmental review processes are completed," she said.

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.

Upcoming Events