America's biggest public utility isn't public enough with its power plans for the future, according to environmental and citizen groups who conducted their own "people's hearing" on TVA's future power plan Thursday in Nashville.
Democrats in Congress, along with environmental advocates across the Tennessee Valley, urged TVA to open its integrated resource planning and turn more to renewable sources of power like solar, wind and energy conservation.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said TVA's approach to planning its long-range power future "is clearly inadequate" and doesn't do enough to allow for meaningful pubic input on TVA's plans for the future, including a faster move away from fossil fuels. Cohen announced Thursday he plans to introduce legislation in Congress to require TVA to do more for public involvement in its power plans under what he calls the TVA Increased Rate of Participation Act for meaningful public participation.
"TVA has no meaningful process for public input, and the customers in the Tennessee Valley are being left out of the process," Cohen said in a video message to the Nashville hearing Thursday from his congressional office. "That hurts the people of the valley for not being part of the process, and it hurts TVA for not getting their ideas. TVA is a publicly owned power company, but they don't act like one."
Cohen said his bill would require TVA to provide the public the detailed modeling used to develop any integrated resource plan at least 100 days before the release of its plan.
TVA is updating its long-range power plan, known as an integrated resource plan, for the next three decades and is expected to release a draft plan for public comment by this spring. By 2035, TVA plans to shut down the last of the 59 coal-fired generators it once operated, and TVA plans to spend $1.5 billion more on energy efficiency and conservation programs as well as boosting its renewable solar, wind and hydroelectric units while building more carbon-free nuclear power generation.
TVA, which already generates more than 60% of its power from carbon-free energy sources like nuclear, hydro and solar, expects to be 80% carbon free by 2035 and has set a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that oversees TVA in Congress, questioned why TVA is not doing more to reduce its carbon emissions as the nation's biggest government utility.
"As climate-fueled disasters ravage our communities, we know that we need to be running toward a clean energy future," Markey said in a video message to the Nashville gathering. "But instead of matching the Biden administration's 2030 zero carbon target for the entire country's electric grid, TVA has been slow walking."
TVA gets less than 3% of its power from solar and wind generation in the sunny South, according to TVA's annual power report. Markey said his home state of Massachusetts, which he said "is not the sunniest place around," gets 22% of its power from wind and solar.
Markey blasted TVA for replacing or planning to replace its shuttered Colbert, Paradise, Allen and Cumberland coal plants with new natural gas generators. TVA President Jeff Lyash said last year the gas plants TVA is building emit only about 40% as much carbon as the coal plants they replace, but Markey said TVA is planning the biggest build out of new fossil fuel generation anywhere in the nation at a time when he said the United States needs to move away from burning any fossil fuels for electricity generation.
Lyash said some solar generation was delayed by supply shipment problems, and gas generation is needed to keep electricity flowing when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow. With the electrification of the economy, including the shift from gas-powered to electric-powered vehicles, TVA projects its power demand could nearly double by 2050, so some natural gas is needed as "a bridge fuel" until new nuclear, hydrogen and other technologies develop, Lyash said.
But during the Nashville forum Thursday, utility consultants and energy experts said TVA should do more to promote energy efficiency and renewable power sources to meet its future energy needs.
Gas risks and advantages
Peter Hubbard, a clean energy advocate and renewable energy developer who works for the nonprofit Georgia Center for Energy Solutions, said TVA's planned construction of eight or more gas units across the Tennessee Valley creates economic, environmental and health risks for the region.
"It will incur 20 years of debt, but these gas plants will not be able to reach the end of their useful lives, and that will leave stranded assets that ratepayers will have to pay without any benefits." Hubbard said during Thursday's hearing in Nashville.
TVA said the gas plants are needed to maintain TVA's 20-year record of 99.999% reliable delivery of electricity to its customers, especially as TVA phases out coal generation and overall power demand continues to grow. But Hubbard said the failure of gas generators and the Cumberland coal plant during Winter Storm Elliott in December 2022 showed the risks of fossil fuels.
Taylor McNair, a program manager with GridLab in San Francisco who has testified at other utility power planning hearings, projects that ratepayers in the Tennessee Valley would benefit overall by a quicker shift to clean and renewable energy. During Thursday's hearing, McNair projected that moving to a 100% clean energy future in the TVA region would bring $255 billion in economywide net savings, including $27 billion of public health benefits, 15,600 new energy-related jobs and lower energy burdens for low-income households. Although electricity rates might still rise, energy conservation measures could more than offset such rate hikes, he said.
McNair said the Inflation Reduction Act provides generous tax incentives for investments in energy efficiency and renewables that in some instances, such as building new solar arrays on old coal plants, can pay for half the cost of the project.
The hearing Thursday was chaired by Ted J. Thomas, a former chair of the Arkansas Public Service Commission that regulates utilities in Arkansas. Thomas served on Arkansas' PSC from 2015 until 2022 after previously working as an administrative law judge for the commission and serving as budget director for former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In a telephone interview, Thomas said the regulatory process used in most states by public service commissions to regulate investor-owned utilities requires more transparency and public involvement in drafting long-range power plans than does TVA's process.
"Because TVA uses only hand-chosen stakeholders (on its review panels), I don't think they are going to get the full kind of review that I think should happen from multiple perspectives," Thomas said. "TVA has an obligation to run its system as it best determines the path forward, but having more public engagement and information available helps give any plans more credibility and public acceptance."
Cohen said when TVA was created as part of the New Deal in 1933 by then President Franklin Roosevelt, "it was your utility. But now it's not."
"It's their utility — the $10 million-a-year people's utility and the multiple other people making over $2 million a year," Cohen said in reference to the $10.5 million compensation package given to TVA CEO Jeff Lyash last year and the pay packages for other top executives of the federal utility. "Tennessee residents have important perspectives relevant to TVA's energy planning process that should be considered. Not all of the brain trusts in the Tennessee Valley are located inside TVA."
The hearing Thursday was sponsored by Appalachian Voices, Energy Alabama, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Sunrise Nashville, the Center for Biological Diversity and Vote Solar.
TVA was invited to offer comments during the afternoon session, but no TVA representatives showed up to speak.
In an emailed statement, TVA spokesperson Scott Brooks said "stakeholder engagement is crucially important to TVA as we position our seven-state region to thrive and flourish well into the future" and he said TVA's integrated resource plan allows for continual comments and feedback at its website, www.tva.com/irp.
"The IRP process is critical in ensuring we have input from all voices — our customers, stakeholders and public — in preparing energy options to serve our region long term," Lyash said last year in a news release announcing the planning process.
TVA has established an integrated resource plan working group, which is a diverse group of two dozen stakeholder groups reviewing details of the planning process.
"We want to hear from all interested parties as we work collectively to design and plan for this region's energy future," Brooks said.
TVA will continue to update the public through webinars, in-person public sessions and by posting the latest information on its website, Brooks said. The next TVA board listening session and TVA board meeting will be Feb. 13-14 in Johnson City, Tennessee.