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TVA Paradise coal plant on the Green River in Western Kentucky was shut down over the weekend / File photo

This story was updated with more information at 5:18 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

The Tennessee Valley Authority shut down the last operating unit at its Paradise Fossil Plant in Western Kentucky over the weekend, ending nearly 57 years of coal-fired generation at was once one of the largest coal plants in TVA's fleet.

Despite opposition from President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the TVA board voted 5-2 last February to retire the last Paradise unit, along with the Bull Run Steam Plant near Oak Ridge by 2023. Due to turbine rotor problem at Paradise and the relatively stagnant power demand for TVA this year, the utility decided to shutter Paradise Unit 3 this month rather than continue to invest in trying to keep the aging power facility on line.

Jim Chappell, a TVA retiree who was the electrical control wing operator when the newest unit at Paradise first began producing power in 1970, returned to the plant Saturday and opened the breaker to separate Paradise Unit 3 from the grid for the final time.

"The Paradise team finished strong," said Kris Edmonson, TVA's vice president of coal power operations. "It's difficult to stay in the game when you have closure looming over your head, but this team persevered as well as many others that have worked at Paradise Fossil Plant leave a strong legacy."

TVA determined that it could generate or buy cheaper and cleaner power from other sources rather than continuing to rely upon its coal-fired unit on the Green River in Western Kentucky. The other two coal-fired units at Paradise were retired in 2017 and were replaced by a $1 billion combined-cycle natural gas plant which is capable of producing 1,025 megawatts of power.

Local residents and political supporters of the coal industry objected to TVA's plans to close Paradise, complaining that it would cost TVA jobs and hurt Kentucky's coal industry. TVA Director Kenny Allen also questioned whether the loss of the coal generation might hurt TVA's reliability.

But with TVA's power demand relatively stagnant and the price of renewable and gas-fired generation declining, TVA officials said the utility is able to use its diverse portfolio to meet TVA's power demands without using the aging Paradise plant. TVA is conducting an environmental review of a proposal to build a 700-megawatt combustion turbine unit at Paradise to help the utility meet short-term power peaks.

"Paradise was designed as a major baseload power generating facility, which we no longer need," TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Monday.

TVA has expanded its nuclear generation for its baseload capacity and gas and renewable sources are better suited and cheaper for meeting power peaks, Hopson said.

The first two units of the Paradise began power generation in 1963, each with a generation capacity of 704 megawatts of electricity. At the time, they were the largest operating coal units in the world.

But TVA shuttered those units in 2017 and invested $1 billion to replace the coal units with a gas-fired power plant, which continues to operate at Paradise.

TVA continues to operate nine coal-fired units at its Shawnee Fossil Plant near Paducah, Kentucky.

Jacinda Woodward, senior vice president of power operations at TVA, said the federal utility has been working with the 110 remaining employees at Paradise Unit 3 to find other positions within the fleet or to retire. Some will remain at the site over the next two years as a transition team.

"Through our employee programs, most employees will continue serving the Valley in new roles or plan to retire knowing they have played a significant role in being a part of TVA's history through their work at Paradise," Woodward said.

TVA continues to employ about 35 workers at its combined cycle gas plant at Paradise. Woodward said TVA will work with the local community to determine any potential future uses for the former fossil site.

Last March, the Kentucky Emerald Land Co. (KELC) Inc., made an unsolicited offer to buy the Paradise plant for $129 million, plus a share of the generating profits from the plant if its kept in operation. But Hopson said TVA has not yet declared the plant as surplus property for sale.

TVA has shut down other coal plants in the past decade at its John Sevier, Allen and Johnsonville plants in Tennessee and its Widows Creek and Colbert plants in Alabama. While Google has built a $600 million data center at the former Widows Creek plant near Stevenson, Alabama, TVA has not disposed of most of its abandoned coal plants where coal ash cleanup and monitoring programs continue.

The Paradise Fossil Plant, which was made famous by John Prine's 1971 hit song "Paradise," broke several records for run times during its 57-year history. Unit 3 at Paradise was at the forefront of environmental stewardship with the installation of the largest air emissions scrubber in the world.

"There's a sense of pride and passion at the site that I've never seen before," said Steve Holland, Paradise Fossil plant manager. "During its last run, everyone was supportive, volunteering to come in on their days off or work overtime. The team took ownership of the plant."

TVA has already shut down a majority of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated, cutting the share of its power generated by burning coal from nearly two-thirds of TVA's generation in the 1980s to 17% of TVA's generation in fiscal 2019, Hopson said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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