Opinion: TVA strategically forging its own path, not waving in the wind to critics’ desires

Staff File Photo By Ben Benton / The cooling towers at TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station in Jackson County, Alabama, are seen from Bellefonte Road in the town of Hollywood on May 18, 2017.
Staff File Photo By Ben Benton / The cooling towers at TVA's Bellefonte Nuclear Generating Station in Jackson County, Alabama, are seen from Bellefonte Road in the town of Hollywood on May 18, 2017.

We'll admit to somewhat of an admiration for the Tennessee Valley Authority for forging its own path amid climate change hysteria, for zigging when critics think it should zag, for making sensible moves when its critics think it should take hard turns.

The federal utility has been in the news recently for deciding to keep the unfinished Bellefonte nuclear plant it previously said it would sell, for proposing new natural gas pipelines even as it plans to shut down its last coal-fired power plant and for raising its base rates after it said in 2019 it would freeze its base rates for the next decade.

Nobody wants to pay higher energy rates, for sure, but TVA said higher inflation, interest rates and power demand created the need for the increase.

(We won't dwell on it at this juncture, but rate payers should understand financial experts have said the inflation is a direct result of the policies of President Joe Biden and the higher interest rates are due to the Federal Reserve's attempt to moderate the inflation the Biden administration's policies caused.)

Meanwhile, EPB already had approved an increase that would raise the typical local residential electric bill about $5 a month, so the combined increase from TVA and EPB will add around $8.50 to customer bills this fall.

In 2019, TVA, having raised its base rate 1.5% for six years, said it foresaw not raising its rate for the next decade. It had hit its targets for paying for a series of system improvements and lowering its debt in six years rather than 10. Officials at the time also said they expected the demand for power would remain flat for several years.

The utility, President and CEO Jeff Lyash said then, had about a 75% chance of keeping that promise or even lowering rates. Unforeseen events could always force a change, he said.

It reminds us of forecasting the weather: There'll be no chance of rain today, unless it rains.

"What changed was inflation and interest rates, which have driven up our costs," Lyash said this week. "But there is also this press for expansion to keep up with the increase in demand we're seeing and expect to continue to grow."

As to power generation, climate change fanatics want TVA to close all of its fossil fuel plants yesterday. And the utility, sensitive to a more environmentally sound energy plan that incorporated a wider variety of power sources, invested in clean coal production and then began to shut down its coal plants altogether. And even as it continued its use of gas generation, it invested in solar and wind energy.

(READ MORE: TVA power demand expected to hit record levels as Chattanooga region heat index tops 100 degrees)

Its investments in green energy have never been as large as its constant critics like the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy would like, but it — like we — have always felt an all-of-the-above energy plan works best until it is proven that greener energies are continually more cost-efficient than fossil fuels.

So while TVA has announced plans to shut down the last of its coal-fired plants by 2035, it earlier this week heard public comments about new natural gas pipelines that would connect to its planned new gas generators at the Kingston Fossil Plant near Oak Ridge and Cheatham County near Ashland City.

The gas plant and pipeline already have been approved by the Ashland City Council and Cheatham County Commission, and utility officials say they will help meet a growing demand for power that could double by 2050. But, in spite of the fact the plants are expected to emit only 40% of the greenhouse gases as the coal plants they are replacing, some residents of the affected areas turned out to oppose them.

On Thursday, TVA directors voted to hold on to the Jackson County, Alabama, Bellefonte site, which they'd declared most of as surplus in 2016. Its use in the future is yet to be determined, but utility officials said it likely will be needed as a site of future power production.

TVA has spent more than $6 billion at the site over a half century. At its construction start, it was to be one of 17 nuclear reactors for the utility. But only seven were completed. Work stopped there in 1988, a sale of the site to the military for tritium production fell through, and work started again in the 1990s. But it was stopped again in 2005.

Chattanooga developer Franklin L. Haney agreed to buy the plant for $111 million in 2016, but TVA later canceled the sale, and a judge upheld that decision in 2022.

The utility is eyeing smaller, modular nuclear reactors, but Lyash said that's not why it's holding onto Bellefonte.

"It could be energy storage or an energy or hydrogen complex," he said.

Whatever is put there, it makes sense to us to keep the site rather than have to buy other land in the future.

TVA will always have its critics and supporters. But we're glad the utility appears to be grounded yet flexible, and not prey to wherever the wind blows (or the critics rail).